Though the Norman Conquest is far back in our history, we still view French cuisine as a very exquisite and formal affair where our manners and language can be put to task. If you’ve ever felt like an old-world peasant at a formal French table, here are some words and phrases that will help you better understand the menu and enjoy the dining experience. Importantly, relax, allow the staff to attend to you, and savor the meal.
maître d’hôtel – Maître is French for master whose responsibilities include supervising the wait staff, taking reservations, and welcoming guests. American speakers shorten the phrase to maître d whereas British speakers say maître.
sommelier – A wine waiter or wine steward.
apéritif – An alcoholic drink taken before a meal to stimulate the appetite.
bon appétit – A salutation before eating.
cuisine – Though simply “kitchen” in French, cuisine also refers to a style of food preparation.
prix fixe – Several courses included under one “fixed price.”
plat du jour – Literally, “plate of the day,” and available only on that day, a plat du jour is a dish prepared in addition to the usual menu.
à la carte – Food items that can be ordered individually and not part of a set meal.
vinaigrette – A dressing of oil and wine vinegar.
soupe du jour – “Soup of the day” is the advertised specialty on a given day.
pièce de résistance – In general usage, the phrase refers to the prize item in any collection. In reference to food, the pièce de résistance is the main or most difficult-to-resist part of a meal.
au jus – Chiefly used in the U.S., au jus indicates that a dish, usually meat, is served in a gravy containing its own juices.
au gratin – A dish prepared au gratin, or “browned,” has been sprinkled with breadcrumbs or grated cheese and browned in the oven or under the grill.
baguette – A long, thin loaf of French bread.
cordon bleu – Literally, “blue ribbon,” reflects a sense of first class.
en brochette – A brochette is a skewer. En brochette simply refers to food cooked or grilled on skewers, like shish kebab.
omelette – A dish traditionally made of beaten eggs fried in a pan and folded over.
pot-au-feu – The literal meaning is “pot on the fire.” It can refer to a large traditional French cooking pot or to something cooked in one, usually a thick soup of meat and vegetables.
roux – A mixture of fat and flour heated together and used in making sauces and soups. In the U.S., a spicy roux is a staple of southern Cajun cuisine.
sauté – The French verb sauter means “to jump.” Vegetables that are sautéed are fried in a pan while being tossed.
soupçon – Literally, French for suspicion, it refers to a very small quantity or “a pinch.”
crème brûlée – A cream topped with caramelized sugar and served as dessert.
petit four – Literally, “little oven,” this is a small fancy cake, biscuit, or sweet served with coffee after a meal.
café au lait – Coffee taken with milk.
à la mode – This French expression means “according to the fashion.” In the U.S., the term usually applies only to desserts and means “with ice cream.”
English has had the influence of many languages in its history. Check out the rich vocabulary we’ve inherited from Spanish and Native American languages, the beauty of the Scots language, or the fascinating story of Gallah, the creole language of the American South!