A la carte, mousse, sauté, purée and the list goes on…
These are just a few of the words that you may stumble upon when looking through a restaurant menu or when reading a recipe from a cookbook or online. The French always take pride in their cuisine and haute and fine flavours as Antoine Beauvilliers wrote in his book “L’art de cuisinier” in 1814: “The French prided themselves when they saw the taste of their cuisine rule over the opulent states in Europe, from north to south, with the same majesty as their language and their fashion.”
But their influence did not stop only at the dinner table! Their language has been adopted by all the grand chefs of many nationalities and it is their cooking terms that are being taught in most cooking schools today.
But what made French the international language of gastronomy? Well, I guess we can partly blame the French revolution for that. Before the revolution, all French chefs were obliged to follow specific rules according to what their guild instructed them. There was no space for creativity and you were not allowed to prepare and share any food product. But after the revolution, the guild system collapsed, and so did its rules. The French chefs were now free to create whatever they wanted. However, at that time many top chefs who were working for the royalty were left without a job. As a consequence, many of them left France and moved to different countries across Europe, searching for work among the aristocrats and the royalty of their European neighbours. That was the beginning of the great influence the French were going to have on high gastronomy in the following years.
But most importantly, what made the French the mother of the cooking language was the fact that they were the first to create and document the rules and principles of the food preparation. One among the first French chefs to do that was Francois Pierre La Varenne when he wrote the “Le cuisinier françois”, in 1651. Almost 300 years later, Georges Auguste Escoffier updated La Varenne’s rules and added new ones, regarding the kitchen and food division and management like the mise en place technique. All these new rules were included in Escoffier’s book “Le Guide Culinaire”, which was published in 1903.
As the years passed by, French cuisine was established as the cuisine of the aristocrats both in Europe and in the United States. All the gourmet restaurants wanted a French chef in their kitchen and their terminology continued to be used in the French language instead of being translated into English because the French word described a whole technique using just one word. It is thus understandable that French would be the language adopted later on, even when the aristocracy ended in most parts of the world, since its language had dominated the gastronomical world for hundreds of years and their systematisation and rules were the best to describe many cooking processes, thus becoming the lingua franca of high gastronomy and cooking.
Here is a short list of the most common French cooking terms used all over the world today:
Aperitif – A French term for a light alcoholic beverage served before a meal, usually sherry or champagne, to stimulate the appetite.
Bain-Marie – A kitchen utensil used to keep prepared food at a constant temperature, ready for service.
Braiser – A method of cooking in which very little liquid is used and the food is cooked over several hours in a sealed pan.
Brunoise – A French term used to describe a specific cut (very small dice) or mixture of vegetables, usually braised in butter.
Concassé – A French term for chopping of pounding an ingredient such as tomatoes, fresh herbs, meats, and ice used to chill an item for serving.
Confit – A cooked meat or poultry that is prepared and stored in its own fat.
Cuvée – The contents of a wine vat or cask. Also the blending of various vats into a whole, this term is used especially with champagne, were the ingredients of a cuvee may come from different wines of different vineyard plots.
Decant – To transfer a liquid from one vessel to another. This is generally done to separate the wine from any sediment and to allow it to “breathe” which enhances the flavor.
Fumé – A French term used to describe foods that are prepared by “smoking”
Sous Chef – The underchef or assistant to the Executive Chef, aids in managing the day to day operations of the kitchen and assumes responsibility in the chefs absence.
Loin – The meat section of an animal that comes from the area on both sides of the backbone extending from the shoulder to the leg, or from the rib to the leg as in beef and lamb.
Maître d’Hôtel – The head of a dining room, assisted by a team of waiters and stewards. They must have a very extensive technical knowledge of all aspects of the restaurant including the kitchens, cellars, and dining room, and be able to advise the guest and guide them through the dining experience.
Pâtisserie – A French term with multiple meanings, the term applies to the art of the pastry cook, sweet pastries and cakes generally bake in an oven, and the place where these confections are made and sold.
Vinaigrette – A basic preparation of oil and vinegar, combined and seasoned.
Written by Antonia Stavridou