Haute cuisine: why is French the lingua franca of cooking?

By Lydia Clarke
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French is so strongly associated with cooking that it crosses over from professional kitchens to the home and on into the dining room. The French may claim credit for the invention of the restaurant, but they didn’t invent cooking. Why, then, are so many cooking terms French in origin? Royal chefs, political upheaval, and five-star hotels all play a role.

In 1651, the chef La Varenne wrote Le cuisinier françois, considered to be the foundation of modern French cuisine. This highly influential book was one of the first to set down codified, systematized rules and principles of food preparation. Royal chefs embraced this new haute cuisine, aided by the royal privilege that exempted them from the guild system that controlled French professional cooking.

When the French Revolution upended French society in the 1790s, it had two major influences on the culinary scene. The guild system collapsed as part of the old order, leaving chefs free to make and sell anything they wanted. And many royal chefs lost their jobs when their employers lost their heads, sending a legion of highly trained French culinary professionals out of the country in search of work in the royal kitchens of Europe. The French influence began to spread.

By the time Georges Auguste Escoffier made his way into the kitchens of César Ritz’s hotel empire in the late 1890s, French cuisine was firmly ensconced as the food of aristocrats and the upper classes in both Europe and the States. Escoffier updated La Varenne’s rules and principles for preparing food, and he established new systems for the actual kitchen. He divided the kitchen into five stations, each responsible for different components of a dish. The garde manger, for example, prepared cold dishes; the saucier made soups and sauces. This system, along with the publication of Le Guide Culinaire in 1903, cemented French’s place in the culinary firmament. Culinary schools teach it, four-star restaurants use it, and we all speak it every time we open a menu or watch “Top Chef.”

So while they might not have invented cooking, the French were the first and best at creating systems and rules for cooking, writing them down, and passing them on. And that’s why professionals and amateurs alike sauté instead of “cook quickly in oil”, julienne instead of “cut into thin strips”, and purée instead of “blend into liquid”. We hope we’ve helped add some historical and linguistic flavor to your next soirée, and wish you a hearty bon appétit.

Photo attribution: Iain Farrell

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