A chef's uniform is more than a fashion statement. Each component plays a specific role in protecting you from the potential dangers common in most kitchens.
A chef's jacket is double-breasted to serve as a two-layer barrier against grease splatters, steam burns, splashes and spills. The design also allows the chef to easily unbutton and switch over to a clean front if needed. The sleeves should be long to protect against burns and scalding, and should therefore not be rolled up.
Chef's pants may look silly with their odd patterns and bulky shape, but they are very important in keeping you safe during your shift. While you may think shorts would be more appropriate in the high temperature environment of a kitchen, in truth, you need pants to protect you from hot spills. The pants should be worn without cuffs, as they could catch and trap scalding debris. They should have an elastic waistband so that you can remove them quickly if hot grease or other liquid spills on them. The bulky shape also keeps splatters from connecting with your skin.
The classic French cooking hat is called a "toque blanche," or white hat. It is tall and round with multiple pleats. Many cooking schools and traditional French restaurants require their chefs to wear a toque, however, many professional kitchens merely require a plain hat of the chef's choosing. The hat plays the dual role of keeping hair away from the food and absorbing sweat from the brow.
The neckerchief also aids in absorbing sweat and is often worn under a chef's jacket tied in a knot similar to a necktie. Not all kitchens require a neckerchief. However, it adds to the professional look of a chef and may set you above the crowd.
The obligatory apron is often a part of a chef's uniform that is provided by the kitchen. The apron adds an additional barrier from harmful splashes and debris. Aprons are meant to get dirty; that said, the cleaner your apron is, the more respect you'll get in the kitchen. A clean apron means you work cleanly, which is a sign of your professionalism and pride in your work.
Similarly, a side towel should be provided by the kitchen. It should not be used to wipe up messes or wipe your hands. Rather, a side towel should be used to lift hot items and other harmful equipment. Avoid getting it wet because then it would no longer insulate against heat properly.
Hard leather, sturdy, slip-resistant shoes are the most important element of the chef's uniform. Kitchen floors are notoriously slippery and cause many injuries. Also, with all the hustle in a kitchen, it is not unheard of to see a knife or other dangerous utensil fall to the floor. If you wear tennis shoes, that knife could very well get lodged in your foot. A hard leather shoe should prevent that.
Regarding comfort and back support, there are many brands in the market today that cater to any number of special needs, be it arch support or extra back support. Find what works best for you. You will be on your feet for many hours and should not be thinking about your feet for any of them.
- Le Chef de l'Hôtel Chatham Paris, William Orpen