We’ve all been there. You’re sitting in a rather la-di-dah restaurant – the sort of place where staff glide around as if on casters, discreetly refilling wine glasses with an almost balletic grace. All is calm, all is serene. That is, until you open the menu and realise, with a giddy, rising panic, that you don’t know what half of it means.
You stare at the ‘menu degustation’ (a tasting menu, to you and me), as your party whispers back-and-forth: “What the hell is ‘cromesqui?’ How do you make milk from hay? Wasn’t Penny Wort in The Avengers? How do you pronounce ‘spaetzle?’”. There’s hurried debate and much guesswork, falling back on half-remembered episodes of Rick Stein’s French Odyssey. The waiter approaches, palms get clammy, voices become tight and, finally, as the order pad is produced you just blurt out, pointing: “I’ll have that one!”
There are several reasons why restaurant menus are often littered with obscure foreign words and perplexing concepts, but the main one is that, basically, chefs are a bit weird. Most of them have been in kitchens 18 hours a day since the age of 16. They rarely see daylight. They read cookbooks to relax. They seldom talk to anyone outside the food world. It’s like the army (or prison) and, consequently, they have developed their own private language of historic French cooking jargon and portmanteau slang for dishes, techniques and ingredients. What they forget is that we civilians find this baffling.
Occasionally, that is their devious aim. There’s nothing like a dash of continental kitchen terminology – a pane carasau here, a ballotine there – to make a pedestrian menu sound exotic. It justifies at least another £20 a head. Similarly, some chefs are simply show-offs. They flaunt their knowledge, not least to intimidate customers. The message is: “I am an expert who knows what is best for you. Do not question my food. Do not complain”.
It’s a conceit that food snobs perpetuate. These self-proclaimed ‘connoisseurs’ think that being able to pronounce Noilly Prat correctly is evidence of their superior taste and discrimination. Rubbish. They may rudely correct you if you order broo-she-tta instead of broo-sketta, but their palates are no more refined than yours.
For those new to good food, for Brits terrible with foreign languages, for those who think that veneur plays for Arsenal (it’s a game sauce), all of this makes eating out far more stressful than it should be. Which is why, in O’s British issue, I’m launching the Campaign For Real Restaurant English. The idea is to provide clarity where there is culinary confusion, in the following key ways:
There are words (nocellara; chorizo; quinoa), which we all struggle with. I know one senior British food journalist who, such is the temptation to bring a Gallic flourish to all things food, used to pronounce turbot, “turbo”. And let’s not kid ourselves that waiting staff are infallible here, either. In a bar, I recently ordered a hefeweizen in perfectly accented German, only for the server to stare at me blankly. After an awkward explanation, she clicked. “Ah, you mean the wheat beer!” This was a double-bind. The menu needlessly listed it as hefeweizen and I was foiled by its own pretentiousness. This is crazy.
In any venue, the aim should be that people feel comfortable and are able to communicate what they would like clearly. Therefore, if there are points of potential confusion on a menu, remove them. There’s no shame in changing banh mi to Vietnamese baguette or bao to steamed bun. No-one wants to order a “bo” and then feel that squirming embarrassment as the waiter corrects their pronunciation: “Yes, sir, ‘the bough’.”
Blame Britain’s historic culinary inferiority complex, or chefs having been trained in classical French kitchens, but menus are often a minefield of opaque French terms such as mi-cuit (part-cooked), boudin noir (black pudding), en gelée (jellied), Viennoiserie (pastries), all of which have perfectly good and readily understood English equivalents. You may quibble that there’s no direct translation of pithivier, but who will complain if you call it a pasty or pie?
This attempt by restaurants to communicate their highbrow credentials in a kind of code takes many forms, all needlessly inscrutable. For instance, ‘ribeye, 45’ does not accurately explain that it is a 45-day-aged steak, just as ‘duck egg 62°’ is an unnecessarily hip, mysterious way of saying soft-boiled egg. Likewise, foam is foam. It does not need sexy spin. Calling it an espuma is gobbledygook and a cappuccino is something else entirely.
Call me old-fashioned, but unless I implicitly trust the chef, I can’t abide minimalist dish descriptions in the vein of ‘pork, shallots, carrots, arrogance’ or ‘beef, smoked hops, hope’. I want a clear outline of how those components will be rendered on the plate.
Occasionally, chefs get too wrapped-up in their own shorthand. They forget we diners are here. Muntjac is not instantly recognisable as venison, just as very few people know that skrei is a trendy type of wild Norwegian cod (except for avid readers of April’s issue of O, of course). “Nosotto”, a diced vegetable, rice-free risotto, is definitely one that would require explanation from the waiter. But will we ask? Often not. Because, to put it bluntly, in language we all understand, when eating-out, no-one wants to be made to feel stupid.
Written by Tony Naylor. First published May 2016
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