Culinary words and definitions

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“Go to the walk-in and bring me the mise en place for the chowder and make sure you grab the mirepoix,” the chef yells on my first night working as a dishwasher at Kinland Cove; an Italian, seafood restaurant in Northern California. Not wanting to look stupid and hoping to impress, I search for something that I might “walk-in” to, to retrieve things with French names that I’ve never heard before.

Ten, then 20 minutes elapse and I’ve still not discovered a “walk-in.” The chef, growing impatient grabs my arm as I continue my search for things that I don’t understand and walks me into a large refrigerator, hands me onions, carrots and celery and announces, “Mirepoix!” He then begins to grab the ingredients for clam chowder, hands them to me and states, “Mise en place for clam chowder. Remember these ingredients and bring them to me when I announce, mise en place for chowder. Now say, ‘Yes Chef.’” I repeat, “Yes chef,” as I exit the walk-in with a little smile knowing that my culinary lexicon has just doubled. I still remember these ingredients and terms 34 years later.

The culinary arts has changed dramatically since my first job as a dishwasher at 17 years old. Three decades ago, few knew culinary terms, understood the culinary arts and restaurant cooking was a mystery. Television offered The Galloping Gourmet, Julia Childs and Justin Wilson. James Beard wrote difficult-to-find cookbooks for chefs to reference and Alice Waters of Chez Panisse — the most influential restaurant in America — was only beginning to come into fashion.

So what has changed in 30 years? The culinary arts is now cool. At 17, dishwashing, cooking and waiting tables was a way to make money why one was planning a real career. Auto mechanic, electrician, teacher, accountant; these were jobs people talked about someday attaining while working in a restaurant to make money for school. Few considered the culinary arts as a career. Times have changed. Now many seek the culinary arts as a profession.

In the ’80s there were a handful of culinary education programs in the nation. Today there are hundreds. Numerous television stations focus on cooking, star chefs are on every channel, in every magazine and on most commercials and one can learn to cook nearly anything on the internet.

Preparing food has become an obsession in America, and I love the obsession! What I don’t love is the use of words to separate those who are immersed in the food culture from the casual observer. Food should bring people together not separate. Words have the power to do both.

Mirepoix and mise en place have an important place in restaurants, but when one uses culinary terms to separate the learned from the layman, the effect is lost. I offer some oft-repeated culinary terms which some use to show off and offer little to further the culinary profession.

• Unctuous — 1. a) fatty, oily b) smooth and greasy in texture or appearance. 2. plastic. 3. full of unction; especially: revealing or marked by a smug, ingratiating and false earnestness or spirituality. I’ve written about this word before. TV show personalities love this word to describe something savory or full of flavor. It is a fun word to say but no one will know what you’re talking about when you say, “That duck confit is extraordinarily unctuous.”

• Umami — a category of taste in food (besides sweet, sour, salt and bitter), corresponding to the flavor of glutamates, esp. monosodium glutamate. If you know what this means by reading the definition, you have my permission to use the word. If not consider this: umami is the taste of mushrooms, steak and tomatoes. Still lost? Well then lose the word!

• Offal — a) the waste or by-product of a process as in a) trimmings of a hide b) the by-products of milling used especially for stock feeds c) the viscera and trimmings of a butchered animal removed in dressing. Now doesn’t that sound delicious? Nose to tail enthusiasts love to shock and delight diners in presenting offal in interesting ways like spiced ox heart and liver risotto — no thank you.

• Chiffonade — shredded or finely cut vegetables or herbs used especially as a garnish. I hear this word on every cooking show I watch. If one reads the definition closely, one will discover that to chiffonade means to cut finely. Maybe simply saying, cut the vegetables or herbs finely is enough. Just saying.

• Season to taste — this is a cop-out for a recipe writer. If the recipe tastes horribly, the writer can simply say, your seasonings were off. Gordon Ramsey uses this all of the time when he complains of a contestant’s food. “Under seasoned, too much salt, add some salt you %^$# *&&$.” I don’t like Gordon Ramsey. He cusses too much and yells too loudly; two things I hate.

• Kale — OK, this is not an unusual term, but it is an unusual leafy green that offers unusual flavors and is the present craze in the culinary world. Used historically to line salad bars and as a garnish underneath a cut orange wedge on a restaurant dinner plate, kale has seldom been tasted by chefs until recently. Kale tastes like it smells — like dirty feet. This fad will pass as fast as it has arrived.


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