The Language of Chefs

Anne-Sophie Pic is the only female French chef to have received three Michelin stars, and is now faced with the challenge of designing meals for Air France’s first-class passengers. Her cuisine is “sensitive and vibrant”, according to one of the menus on a recent Paris-New York flight. “She invents a new culinary language every day, and has a true gift for combining powerful flavours and delicate aromas. Marrying simplicity, purity and straight-forwardness, her cuisine transforms every product into an incomparably harmonious work of art.”

On that particular flight she had suggested a lunch option of “lobster roasted in crustacean-infused oil”, whose highly detailed description ended on the following note: “And to finish it all off, the magnificent pairing of juniper and Menton lemons creates a burst of floral, woody notes which leave a lingering sensation of grilled lobster.”

But the incredibly talented Anne-Sophie Pic is not the only one to champion her art or glorify her gastronomical creations. Another grand chef by the name of Pierre Gagnaire evokes his desire to “showcase both emotion and intelligence in [his] cuisine” on his website. “The composition of a dish must be meticulously designed, easy to understand and individual. I strive to find ways of inspiring emotion in myself while delighting others. I see it as very humane cuisine, which requires humility from both the chef and the person enjoying the dish.”

The dishes are presented on the menu in his restaurant with rare, luxurious precision, offering “A cocotte of aromatic herbs in which we briefly smoke a large gnocchi flavoured with Laguiole cheese – creamy autumnal soup with seeds and mustard stems”, “Red mullet barded with Colonnata lard, pan-fried and finished on a bed of Tellina shellfish infused with star anise – fennel, Karachi and red mullet liver” and “Rib of veal from the Limousin region perfumed with curry herbs and caraway seeds – roasted and deglazed with aged amber rum.”

Another highly renowned restaurant is Michel Guérard’s Les Prés d’Eugénie. This prestigious establishment in the Landes département boasts a menu offering such delicacies as “the “Surprise Exquise” Truffle Zephyr as a Cloud, on a Delicate Garden Soup”, “Scheherazade Millefeuille” and the “Marquis de Béchamel Soft Cake”.

We should not however be misled by these examples, which practice a form of one-upmanship between poetic metaphors and overblown eloquence. The language of French gourmet restaurants has in fact become far more accessible over the last few years. The current trend is clearly aiming for sobriety.

At Alain Ducasse’s restaurant at the Plaza Athénée hotel, there is a clear emphasis on the origin of the ingredients: “Île d’Yeu red mullet on scales, liver sauce, vegetable tian”, “Milk pastilla, Hautes-Pyrénées peanuts, hay yogurt”. And at Guy Savoy’s restaurant La Monnaie de Paris, the set menu has reached the heights of simplicity: “Shellfish: oysters. Caviar. Fish: sea bass. Crustacean: lobster. Soup. Meat: poultry. Cheese: fourme d’Ambert. Fruit: apple. Desserts: a selection.”

This brevity nevertheless come at a price. Around 390 euros, to be precise.

While it may be rather elliptic, written descriptions do not rule out oral contributions. In certain renowned restaurants such as the ultra-famous Noma in Copenhagen, the chefs personally visit the dining area to explain their creations to guests.

Regardless of trends, lovers of ornate language can always rely on the world of wines. As we know all too well, there is no shortage of adjectives for this particular nectar. Pleasant, abrupt, playful, vivacious, lively, sweet, noble, distinguished, curvaceous and creamy are all adjectives describing a wine’s character, and are just a handful of those used by oenologists.

Others still are used to describe the wine’s body, such as heady, plump, robust, full-bodied, frank, well-rounded and potent. And that’s not all! A wine also has a nose, aromas, a bouquet, volume, and even a robe. It can also be fresh, taut and lean. The vocabulary of the wine world is drawn from a vast range of registers, which can often lead to examples such as “a wine that stands out though its woody nose, its aromas of black fruits and graphite, its intense, lingering taste and silky tannins” (read in the weekly magazine Challenges).

But the offer is such that it is often necessary to stand out from the competition, sometimes by creating a unique semantic universe: “This wine carries a message, symbolizing the link between biodynamic agriculture and a quantum mindset”. This extract was picked up by chance while reading a commercial for Minervois wine, and it leaves one rather perplexed. As to whether it gets mouths watering or not, is an entirely different question.


Column published in the February 2016 issue of France-Amérique.

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