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Menu Semiotics


eljo
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Not that I don't agree with most of this stuff but it reminds me of Dead Poets Society, where they're reading about Poetry according to J. Edward Pritchard. Those of you who saw that movie will know what I'm talking about. " Rip, rip, rip. Rip it out, tear out the whole thing. Be gone J. Edward Pritchard." That aside, there's something to be said for manipulating the wording of menus. Put the word truffle on it and you can charge outlandish prices--even if the dish in question is only slightly enhanced with some bottom of the barrel summer truffle oil. I like the way the europeans do it. None of this, "served over a bed of...", "atop a..." "grilled to perfection...". It's more like steak with vegetables and red wine sauce. I loved Lutece's menus when Soltner ran the place. Not a lot of fluff. It speaks to the attention span and knowledge of the intented "demographic".

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I like the way the europeans do it.  None of this, "served over a bed of...", "atop a..."  "grilled to perfection...".  It's more like  steak with vegetables and red wine sauce. I loved Lutece's menus when Soltner ran the place.  Not a lot of fluff.  It speaks to the attention span and knowledge of the intented "demographic".

While I basically agree, it occurs to me that the American style is essentially more democratic: anybody can read the description and get a sense of what they're going to eat. Whereas if you're at a French restaurant and see, sayf, "tournedos Rossini" and don't know what those are, you have to fess up to your ignorance.

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Actually I very rarely see tournedos Rossini anymore, nor do I see many of the classic garnishes or codified names in the most famous restaurants. I found the article rather easy. It was at its worst when it had the tone of an American tourist in Paris complaining that everyone was speaking French just to confuse him. It didn't matter that most everyone else understood. Restaurants and dining are part of a subculture with a language or jargon all its own. Foreigners may need a guide and some help. The author was roped into a dish by the mention of an ingredient she didn't know and seems to feel that was the fault of the menu. To someone else, crosnes may be conventional and something to be avoided.

Traffic Jamming: Menus tend to be simpler abroad because other cultures have canonical dishes. Everyone in Italy knows what saltimbocca is. You don't have to tell a Frenchman what's in a gratin dauphinoise.
She hasn't eaten in Spain for a while, but even in France, this is no longer true.

The following is the first appetizer at a moderately priced restaurant in the suburbs of Paris

Cookies de Lapereau au Grué, Ile Flottante de Cornichons à la Sarriette et finger de condiment, giboulée de pain de campagne à votre goût

By the way, tournedos Rossini is a codified dish like gratin Dauphinoise.

Identifying the source of your meats and produce is hardly brand naming in the manner of a rock star talking about his car. It's not like the restaurant is even listing the kitchen equipment manufacturer on the menu, he's just identifying the source of what you eat.

Of course she will find an audience, but the nature of the article is that one could take the opposite view on every point and find another cynical audience that will agree, not that some of her points seem to damn those who do as well as those who don't anyway. Make fun of anything and someone will laugh.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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I like the way the europeans do it.  None of this, "served over a bed of...", "atop a..."  "grilled to perfection...".  It's more like  steak with vegetables and red wine sauce.   I loved Lutece's menus when Soltner ran the place.  Not a lot of fluff.  It speaks to the attention span and knowledge of the intented "demographic".

While I basically agree, it occurs to me that the American style is essentially more democratic: anybody can read the description and get a sense of what they're going to eat. Whereas if you're at a French restaurant and see, sayf, "tournedos Rossini" and don't know what those are, you have to fess up to your ignorance.

Fessing up to ignorance, despite what the French think, is cleansing. If you fess up then knowledge is gained.

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Restaurants and dining are part of a subculture with a language or jargon all its own. Foreigners may need a guide and some help.

I think this is the point the author of the article is missing: the act of going to a nice restaurant has, for better or worse, become an activity dependent on a fairly large body of knowledge, with its own particular code.

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Fessing up to ignorance, despite what the French think, is cleansing.  If you fess up then knowledge is gained.

Fair enough. But is making your customers feel ignorant-- even if it's educational or morally uplifting-- a good way to run a business?

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Fessing up to ignorance, despite what the French think, is cleansing.  If you fess up then knowledge is gained.

Fair enough. But is making your customers feel ignorant-- even if it's educational or morally uplifting-- a good way to run a business?

Well if you're point blank obviously trying to inflict a mortal wound on the unprepared, or uninformed then yeah, you should have your ABC card revoked and be subjected to the torments only available in hell--or Applebee's as the case may be. But, if you're strategic, nurturing, pleasant, visably interested in trying to enlighten then passing on knowledge can be close to reverence. Case in point--my case--The French Laundry. Those folks--now I'm talking about Pedro--the Mexican who presented the cornet with the chive tip glued to the side of the tartar, the wait team, Bobby the sommelier, Laura the manager, Thomas himself--are among the most knowledgeable restaurant people in the world. Bar none. They could have been stuck up pricks like the some of the staff at Daniel (thank you Leslie Brenner). They could have looked down their nose at me, not given a shit that I took time out of a busy Christmas bum rush at my restaurant to max out my credit cards on last minute airline flights, rent a cars, hotel, etc. But they treated me like a VIP, told me histories behind each dish, a funny vignette about the Vermont chick with the two cows who only made butter for the French Laundry, they kept asking how "I knew" Thomas. I felt like the coolest dude in the world. They could have easily chucked my feelings to the end of the line but, as classy, considerate people do, they performed the necessary function as liasons between the unknown and the curious. How does this relate to menus, I know, I know....

Lutece 1989, 12:35 pm, full restaurant...Benoit, the head waiter, called in sick with some BS story.....

The menu looms, you see salmon with bacon and cabbage, baeckoffe of pork, and a couple of other dishes written in French. You ain't got a clue what to order. Salmon with bacon and cabbage...doesn't necessarily sound that interesting, kind of boring actually. Baeckoffe, what the .... You're waiter is monitoring six tables, all VIP's, deeply weeded, but visably cool. He finally gets to your table, apologetically but making all the motions of a guy thinking about twenty five things at once, with the "I had to pee two hours ago" stutter step making you nervous. Do you dare ask him about salmon and bacon. What would they do at The French Laundry? If you've got knowledgeable and caring waiters then you can get away with salmon and bacon. If you've got Pierre le Huff, you may want to stick a translated "battered with applewood smoked bacon and lightly pan-fried" underneath the stark wording. Make sense?

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The point is that the codified dishes, the ones that were served from Escoffier up to nouveau cuisine in France are no longer the norm in France. When they were the norm, there's no reason to believe they weren't learned the way we learn the flavors of ice cream. We're not born understanding vanilla and chocolate, be learn the tastes as we grow up and experience them. Slowly you learned that coq au vin also meant with mushrooms, onions and lardons and so it went. Sometimes an adult would run across a more esoteric preparation -- one not commonly found -- and he would ask about it. The problem was only with the adult plunged into a culture, be it that of a foreign country or that of a French restaurant culture in the US, and being uptight about not appearing as sophisticated as his neighbor at the next table. So what we might be talking about is dumbing down the menu for the entry level diners and many French restaurants provided translations for the French terms with full ingredients. The truth is that French terms entered the English language so many years ago and haven't stopped although they are often bastardized. Calf becomes veal in the kitchen and pig becomes pork all in homage to the French influence in English kitchens. Au gratin becomes o'gratin on the packages of frozen foods and a la mode becomes a code for pie with ice cream. Soupe du jour becomes soup de jur on menus and if you ask the waitress what that is today, she's liable to tell you that it's the soup of the day with a srtaight face.

Nevertheless, as I've noted, French menus have changed considerably and are undergoing rapid change now as the Escoffier classics have faded from serious restaurants.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Does this tell us anything?

To quote:....."Menus tend to be simpler abroad because other cultures have canonical dishes. Everyone in Italy knows what saltimbocca is. You don't have to tell a Frenchman what's in a gratin dauphinoise. But for better and for worse, American chefs aren't beholden to culinary history. Their menus shirk such basic titles. "

To comment on the article,

I am not so sure, whether this type of 'menuing' is maybe the only education/understanding the patron is willing to accept as a learning process. The cookbooks the average American buys and reads are simple listings of recipes and satisfy. Other, more sophisticated culinary literature is not read as it takes understanding and a desire to want more Info about eating in general. John and Mary Q. Average do not prioritize food consumption and only eat to live, vs. "like to eat".

As always: I stand corrected !

http://slate.msn.com/id/2082098

I've commented on this all too simple and untrue statement elsewhere and am moving this post into that earlier thread. -- bux

Edited by Bux (log)
Peter
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but they may return at some point down the line. everything else is retro these days, so why not Escoffier classics?

what does soupe du jour mean, then? the original meaning that is...

my knowledge of French is quite lacking

Soba

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but they may return at some point down the line.  everything else is retro these days, so why not Escoffier classics?

what does soupe du jour mean, then?  the original meaning that is...

my knowledge of French is quite lacking

Soba

Soupe du jour is soup of the day in menu Franglais.

Actually if you go back to the original Escoffier, rather than the later Grand Hotel Cuisine, his recipes are remarkably fresh and modern. More often than not the sauces are relevant and often reductions, the garnishes apropriate.

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but they may return at some point down the line.  everything else is retro these days, so why not Escoffier classics?

what does soupe du jour mean, then?  the original meaning that is...

my knowledge of French is quite lacking

Soba

Soupe du jour is soup of the day in menu Franglais.

Actually if you go back to the original Escoffier, rather than the later Grand Hotel Cuisine, his recipes are remarkably fresh and modern. More often than not the sauces are relevant and often reductions, the garnishes apropriate.

You know, I've been thinkin' (always a half empty proposition)....I don't think Escoffier rhymes with anything. Not a word. Nothing's close.

Edited by Chef/Writer Spencer (log)
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If the CIA were investigating classical French cuisine, wouldn't they have an Escoffier Dossier?

Maybe that doens't rhyme all that well but it popped into my head as I sit here blowing off work.

Bill Russell

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You know, I've been thinkin' (always a half empty proposition)....I don't think Escoffier rhymes with anything. Not a word.  Nothing's close.

"Soup of the day"?

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Soupe du jour becomes soup de jur on menus and if you ask the waitress what that is today, she's liable to tell you that it's the soup of the day with a srtaight face.

It means soup of the day NOW, but what did it mean back then? I know what it means now (ba ba bump), of course, but obviously Bux is referring to something that I don't know about. Make sense? :blink:

Soba

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Soupe du jour becomes soup de jur on menus and if you ask the waitress what that is today, she's liable to tell you that it's the soup of the day with a srtaight face.

It means soup of the day NOW, but what did it mean back then? I know what it means now (ba ba bump), of course, but obviously Bux is referring to something that I don't know about. Make sense? :blink:

Soba

This is going to get complicated, so bear with me:

French English

------------------

Soupe = soup

Du = of

Jour = day

=Mark

Give a man a fish, he eats for a Day.

Teach a man to fish, he eats for Life.

Teach a man to sell fish, he eats Steak

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Soupe du jour becomes soup de jur on menus and if you ask the waitress what that is today, she's liable to tell you that it's the soup of the day with a srtaight face.

It means soup of the day NOW, but what did it mean back then? I know what it means now (ba ba bump), of course, but obviously Bux is referring to something that I don't know about. Make sense? :blink:

What I'm referring to is a staff that is clueless beyond belief. Not just clueless about French terms, but clueless about what kind of information a diner might want before ordering his meal. When I ask the waiter about the "soupe du jour" I expect the ditz to understand that I've come to Joe's diner to eat and not get French lessons. I expect someone prepared to tell me what's cooking.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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