Greg Baker, chef-owner of The Refinery in Tampa, Florida, is a 20-year kitchen veteran, having worked in Portland, Oregon and Austin before opening his James Beard Award–nominated restaurant in 2010. Previously, Baker wrote about the keys to hiring a sous chef (rule one: weed out the lazy assholes). Today, he brings us four reasons why he dislikes chef coats.
In my early cooking career — and by career, I mean jobs I took while avoiding college before I decided to be a chef — I was forced to wear many items of apparel that I didn’t care for. A rectangular paper hat and hairnet, polyester polo shirts and the dreaded, all-white Good Humor man outfits, included. When I finally earned a spot in a restaurant that required a chef coat, I felt like I’d made it to the big leagues. But after a short time, I came to realize those coats pretty much suck.
Of course there are solid reasons to wear a chef’s coat: uniformity, pride and protection from burns. I also believe that everyone should do their time in a coat while they’re coming up as a young cook. But with the exception of playing in someone else’s kitchen – out of proper respect – or special events, I’ve given up on them. My disdain for them is so strong that I’ve actually banned them from my kitchens. I’ll likely catch flack for this, but I’m going to present my arguments for why these damn things have no part in my world.
1. They create a false sense of professionalism
As a 20-year-old culinary student, long haired and leather jacketed, it was thrown into my face daily that a professional chef was expected to have razor cut hair, a pristine coat and apron, a neckerchief and a ridiculous paper toque. The largely European faculty came from a mindset of apprenticeships and compulsory military service — which dictated uniformity, a breakdown of self and a rebuilding of their world view. I get all of that, but clothes don’t make the man any more than going to church on Sunday makes one pious.
This whole mindset that a coat is the be-all, end-all of the industry translates into way too many young cooks who’ve had it drilled into their heads by clipboard chefs. A coat is kitchen wear. I cringe when a job candidate walks through my door in a coat. Do they not know how to dress for an interview? We’re just talking here — save the utilitarian work garb for a stage, if you get that far.
2. They’re incredibly hot
I live in Florida. Back in the '80s, working air conditioning in a kitchen was beyond rare. Couple the sub-tropical summer heat with the standard issue cotton-poly blends of the time, and life in the jacket was freaking miserable. One’s coat would be drenched in the first 30 minutes of a 13-hour shift (quite the accomplishment when the required thickness of clothing is measurable with a ruler), and heat related skin maladies were all too common. Attempts of wearing cotton t-shirts backfired due to them becoming soaked and binding – just try to achieve a full range of motion wearing a shirt so wet that you might as have well been swimming in it, then encased in a two pound coat. Sleeves were rolled up as far as possible, negating the protective nature of the sleeves, and forearm and bicep burns were frequent.
3. They look like absolute shit
Do you know how linen companies keep things white? They use 200 degree water and swimming pool chlorine. No cook has either of those resources at their disposal. Thus a new, white coat is white for no more than four weeks before it takes on a dingy gray. And of course, few cooks have the scratch to keep a week’s supply of coats on hand, so they get washed frequently. A decent cotton white coat will start falling apart in two months due to the excessive washing necessary to have a clean coat on hand, daily. Pretty soon that coat is the equivalent of the same baggy-ass houndstooth “kitchen pants” that you have to tell your people to never wear again.
4. Even when they’re free, they suck
The other option is the dreaded employer-supplied coat. Christ on a crutch, I hate these. The linen supplier provides the finest cotton-poly blends known to human kind, starched to the point of ridiculousness. But most employers use the formula that each employee only needs three coats for a five day work week. It does wonders for employee morale for a cook to walk in and wear the same stinky-ass coat that they wore yesterday. Every splash, spill and scorch from the night before reminds them of every mistake they made. As a bonus, they just might get a complimentary ass chewing from Chef for not having a clean coat on.
When I opened my own place, I banned coats from my kitchen. We’re a different kind of environment, with different kind of staff. I’ve got a kitchen full of misfits in jeans and t-shirts. Does the lack of white coats mean we’re any less professional, any less dedicated to our craft? Maybe, maybe not. But the response to my direction in my kitchen is still, “Yes, Chef!” So, you tell me.
Read more from Greg Baker on Food Republic: