Posts tagged #Chef's Togue

Mardi Gras, the Chef’s Toque and the Court of the Two Sisters

There is no destination in America that offers more elaborate costumes (or cuisine) then New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Whether enjoying the grand parade of the customed “Indian” clubs in the streets of the old French Quarter or glazing at the elegant attire at the private krewe balls while enjoying chilled champagne, there is no simply no other place like grand New Orleans.

Yet none of this is new to the Big N.O. Whether it’s the classical white towering toques that New Orleans’ famed chefs wear or the stylish tignon head wraps still worn with pride by many of the city's most beautiful women, New Orleans has always been a city of flavor and fashion flare.

When New Orleans’ first professional chefs arrived they were French and they brought with them the culinary traditions of their homeland – including the wearing of the venerated toque or tall white chef's hat. First wore in the 16th century, this hallmark hat began as a simple European tradesman’s hat, enabling the harried venders to quickly identify the chief cook among the many other tired kitchen servants.

As cooking developed into a profession and random cooks became trained chefs, the toque rose in height and importance. The legendary French Chef Marie-Antoine Careme designed the now universal chef attire of the white jacket and, of course, tall starched toque. Tradition says the 100 folds of the classic toque honor the fact that Chef Careme knew 100 different ways to cook an egg. Amazing!

When New Orleans' early chefs walked to market they often nodded their heads to the free black women of the city who also wore their own distinctive headwear.  In 1785 the then Spanish governor of Louisiana passed a law requiring free women of color to cover their hair and avoid any use of feathers or jewelry. When the French retook possession of the Mississippi colony, they continued the ruling.

Not to be denied their identity, these remarkable women developed elaborate scarf wrapping techniques, known as making a tignon, to make an art of what was supposed to be a restricting limitation. Free and creative, these women held a unique position in post-Civil War New Orleans, often acting as culinary suppliers to the chefs.

Two individuals who were heirs to this world between worlds were the two Camors sisters, Emma and Bertha. Together they designed and created gowns for many of the city’s finest ladies (and quietly for some of their husband’s special ‘friends” as well). At their workshop the treasured fabrics and ribbons moved through their skilled fingers as they also savored the drifting nearby smells of rich creole cooking. Year after year the sisters stitched gown after gown in the courtyard of their elite establishment on Governor’s Row.

Each year they traveled to Paris, the home of fashion, then and now, to study the latest Worth designs and purchase the rare laces and rich fabrics available only there. Once back at home, they skillfully blended the legacy of Europe's style with the cross-cultural influences of New Orleans to create gowns as memorable as the city itself.

The flavor and flare of their creativity is captured today by two brothers, Joseph and Jerome Fein, owners and directors of the restaurant - The Court of the Two Sisters.  Located in the exact location of the sisters’ workshop, this esteemed destination offers one of the city’s best brunches, all to the sounds of New Orleans jazz, just behind a wrought iron gate of promised grace near a softly flowing fountain.

If it seems another world, well, it is – especially at Madri Gras where fans and feathers, beads and bubbles mingle with cuisine and chefs in tall toques smile at the end of the day and say as only a southern chef can say, “Ah, New Orleans!”   

Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2011