It's illuminating to remember that chefs have existed longer than either doctors or dentists. Indeed, while tooth extractions were still being performed by barbers, and the field of medicine had scarcely advanced beyond the practice of bloodletting—sometimes using leeches—the culinary field was already highly developed, refined and sophisticated.
It's not surprising, then, that the culinary arts are so steeped in tradition. Classical-era chefs had already mastered their field before the fledgling medical community had even figured out what their field was. And it hardly seems a coincidence that modern doctors and dentists would adopt the white coat as part of their professional attire. Chefs, after all, were the original white-collar professionals.
But chefs are a practical bunch, and the white chef's jacket is more than just a uniform—it's also an important tool. Every element of its distinctive design exists for a reason, and every feature—from the knotted buttons to the color white itself—serves a specific purpose. The key factors to consider will be fabric, buttons, and color.
Chef Jackets: Protection and Cooling
Much has changed in the field of professional cooking over the centuries, but one thing that has remained constant is the intense heat of the kitchen. Even before the invention of the stove, cooks worked over an open fire. Thus one of a kitchen worker's primary needs is to avoid burns and keep cool. A good chef's jacket performs both of these functions well.
Long sleeves help protect arms from burns while reaching across stove burners or into ovens. Cotton also absorbs liquids. Cooks are taught to quickly strip off their jackets if they spill hot oil on themselves because the jacket absorbs the hot liquid instead of letting it pass through to the skin.
Heavy cotton helps insulate cooks from the searing heat of stoves and ovens while remaining "breathable" enough that their body heat can still escape.
White is the most reflective color, so a white jacket repels heat instead of absorbing it, keeping cooks that much cooler than if they were wearing a darker color—and in a hot kitchen every degree makes a difference.
Bring in the Bleach
Plus, when it's laundry time, white cotton can be bleached, so no matter how badly stained a jacket gets, bright white is just a wash away.
Speaking of stains, that double-breasted style is more than just a fashion statement. Along with the double breast are double rows of buttons, so if the front of the jacket gets stained, a cook can reverse the flaps and reveal a fresh, clean outer layer.
Even those knotted buttons serve a purpose. Ordinary buttons can melt or break, sending fragments into an unsuspecting diner's food. Knotted buttons also slip off more easily in the event of a hot oil emergency as described above.
Some chef jackets are made of a cotton-polyester blend and feature plastic buttons, and many come in colors other than white. These are fine if you're cooking at home. But if you're starting culinary school or going to work in a commercial kitchen, the best ones are 100% cotton with knotted buttons. They'll cost a bit more, and of course, cotton is more prone to wrinkle. But if you're going to spend hours at a time in a hot kitchen, you'll feel the difference.