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Talkin’ the Talkby Gary Allen

For some reason, people who have never worked in the food service industry think that anyone who cooks is a chef. This notion is so far off the mark that one can only assume that there is some language barrier that prevents them from understanding what it is that makes a chef a chef. The actual duties of a chef are so numerous, and involve a set of skills that have nothing to do with the cooking itself, that we should probably save that discussion for another time.

However, that language barrier is worth examining.

Like most trades, food service personnel have developed their own jargon, a private vocabulary—what might be called a “shorthand for short-order cooks,” if it didn't apply to all levels of kitchens—that makes their work-life easier, or prevents mistakes that might otherwise be made.

Because the basic structure of the professional kitchen is based on models established by the French (specifically, Escoffier’s creation of the brigade de cuisine in the nineteenth century, in which an almost military hierarchy was instituted to provide a chain of command, thereby eliminating confusing or contradictory orders—everyone, from the executive chef to the lowly plongeur, dish washer, knows his assignments). This model is used in almost all high-end, or white tablecloth, restaurants—but, in simplified form, can be seen in the lowliest greasy spoon. Along with le brigade, a host of terms that serve as shorthand have come to us from the French.

Mise en place, refers to the cook’s need to have everything ready before cooking ever begins. It means not only all the ingredients that will be needed, but a work station that is clean and orderly and, by extension, an orderly mindset that allows for the efficient and timely production of whatever that station is meant to produce. Mise en place is the professional’s mantra.

Professionals don’t need to be told how to prepare the standard components of dishes, so simple terms replace whole sets of instructions. Mirepoix is nothing more than two parts onion, one part celery, and one part carrots—all chopped so they can be lend their distinctive aromatic presence to countless dishes. In Cajun kitchens, mirepoix becomes “the trinity” by substituting green pepper for the carrots. Concassé is nothing more than peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes. Brunoise sounds sophisticated, but means nothing more than “cut into tiny dice, approximately a quarter inch or smaller.” There are hundreds of such terms, to be found in the glossary of culinary French terminology. (For more, see www.onthetable.us/culinaryfrench.shtml.)

Classic French restaurants are not the only places that need clear, concise and unmistakable communication. Consider the high-speed ordering and production that takes place at the window between kitchen and counter in a diner. All day long, orders are shouted, orders that could easily be mistaken because they sound like something else. “Rye toast” could be confused with “dry toast”—but not if the waitress calls for “whiskey down.” Diner lingo is especially colorful, no doubt created not just for efficiency but to enliven an otherwise dull occupation.

Consider these names for egg dishes, all classic diner stand-bys:

Adam and Eve on a raft, or log (poached eggs on toast)
Arches (eggs)
Berries, Cackleberries or Cockleberries (eggs)
Biddies on a raft (poached eggs on toast)
Cluck (eggs; hence: Cluck and grunt, bacon and eggs )
Cowboy (western omelette; hence Cowboy with spurs: Western omelette with fries)
Deadeye (a poached egg)
Eternal twins (ham and eggs)
Flop two (a pair of fried eggs, cooked over easy; similarly, flop two, over medium and flop two, over hard)
Forty-two (two orders of eggs over; hence: Forty-two over all the way: add fried potatoes and toast)
Fry two or Let the sun shine or Sunnyside up (a pair of fried eggs with yolks intact)
Hen Fruit (boiled eggs)
Kiss the pan (eggs over easy)
Nun’s toast (hard-boiled eggs with white gravy on toast)
Pope Benedict (poached eggs on an English muffin, with Hollandaise sauce)
Two dots and a dash (two fried eggs and one strip of bacon)
Wreck ’em (scrambled eggs)
Wrecked hen with fruit (scrambled eggs with a glass of orange juice)

Some of the terms listed above are numerical (such as Forty-two). Almost all of such terms were derived from soda-jerk slang that was coined in the 1920s and early 1930s, during Prohibition. One, “eighty-six,” is still in use in every kitchen. It means an item is sold out, no longer on the menu—or, in some cases, should not be served to a particular customer.

Not all soda jerk slang was intended to increase professional efficiency, however:

Eighty-seven and a half (check out the pretty girl who just walked in; the diner equivalent is “ Check the ice”)
Ninety-eight (the assistant manager, a toady)
Ninety-nine (the boss)
Thirteen (watch out, the boss is around)

It’s been said that fifty percent of Americans have worked, at some point in their lives, in food service of some kind. Could it be that the creators of “Get Smart” had such experience? It might explain why the bumbling Maxwell Smart’s codename was Agent 86, while his beautiful and competent partner was Agent 99…

You can find more of Gary Allen's culinary wit and wisdom on his website: www.onthetable.us



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