What is the Origin of the Words Culinary and Cuisine? Also, What is Haute Cuisine and Nouvelle Cusine?

Posted on 05 Oct 2012 17:11

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The origin of the word culinary, part of the name of this blog, really doesn't require a lot of explanation. It has a very direct origin from the Latin word for kitchen or cookstove: culina. Culina itself derived from the Latin word coquere, meaning "to cook."

The words concoct, precocious, and concoction also come from coquere. Concoction means to "cook up something by mixing ingredients." We get this by combining the prefix con-, meaning together, with the root word, to get a word that basically means to cook together.

A decoction, which is a word you probably never used unless you are an herbalist or similar, means to "cook something down." It comes from combining the prefix de- with coquere. The term usually applies to boiling down something in water, such as leaves, roots, or other plant parts, to obtain an extract.

So, although we can use the word culinary to describe anything to do with food, or the cooking of food, the word really signifies cooking. This is why a culinary school is a cooking school.

To say is a child is precocious means, if you understand the origin, that he is "cooked before his time." Literally, it means precooked. What we are really saying, of course, is that he seems to have developed certain abilities or characteristics at an earlier age than normally happens.

The word kiln also comes from the Latin culina. A kiln is a brick-lined or earthen oven used for baking and drying things like bricks or pottery. Interestingly, although most of us pronounce the word kiln by sounding the n at the end, those who work with kilns professionally often drop the n and just say kil. The dropping of the n is something that used to often happen in English. Another example is the word mill, which was originally milne, having come from the Latin word molina.

Culinary can be used to refer to anything to do with food, the kitchen, or cooking. It's a flexible word. Interestingly, the word cuisine, which we get from the French, comes from the same Latin roots and is similar to the Spanish word cocina, which means "kitchen." La cuisine literally means "kitchen" in French but the word has a plasticity that causes it to be used to mean "a style of cooking," or even "to cook"

Many people know the word cuisine from the very popular Japanese cooking show Iron Chef and its present American version. On that show a fictional "chairman" played by an actor1, begins the cooking competition between chefs by shouting "Allez cuisine!". He is supposedly saying "Go to the kitchen." To be more precise, the original Chairman Kaga actually said something more like "Alleh-Kizeen!" If he meant to say "go to the kitchen" this would be incorrect French. To the kitchen would actually be "À la cuisine." However, apparently even native French speakers cannot quite decide if he is breaking any rules, as there could be other intentions, such as the imperative allez, cuisine: "Come on, let's go do some cooking," or "come on, let's get to the kitchen." This just goes to show how plastic the word cuisine is. Since I don't speak French, despite my three years of trying to study it, I don't know what anybody is saying, only that I never use the word cuisine and only chose the word culinary for this site because it has "cool" in it.

Haute Cuisine and Nouvelle Cuisine

Two terms you may hear when someone wants to talk fancy about their style of French cooking are haute cuisine and nouvelle cuisine. Haute cuisine means high cooking, which, as you can guess, refers to the way high class people cook and eat. It is a way of saying fancy or elaborate or grande cooking like you get in restaurants. In fact, many people get it mixed up with the term La Grande Cuisine Française, but this was actually the term often applied to the earlier cuisine of the French aristocracy, which was not yet as far removed from the cooking of the Middle Ages as haute cuisine. This newer term came about in the 1920's and also has a connotation of great skill. This concept is opposed to cuisine bourgeois, or home cooking.

Haute cuisine is the origin of the French mother sauces, which most cooking students must learn early on in cooking school, and the very systematic tradition for which French cooking is known. Haute cuisine was more or less systematized and codified by the famous French chefs Antonin Carême (Marie-Antoine Carême) and Georges-Auguste Escoffier. However, they worked on the shoulders of a much earlier chef who is often not given the credit he deserves.

Until the 1600's, cooking remained mostly unorganized, unsystematic, and unrefined. There had been attempts at improvement, such as the contributions of Guillaume Tirel in his handwritten book Le Viandier (The cook), written in the 1300's and which later became the first printed cookbook. Tirel, usually called Taillevent, invented many new dishes with lots of sauces and soups, something that was lacking. He also got away from the heavy use of spices, which has often been thought to have been a way of covering bad flavors from meat that was passed its prime. However, the heavy and generous use of spices from far-off land, like saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, cardamon ginger, and cloves that was common in the great French banquet halls, was a reflection of the wealth of the aristocrats who feasted on such food and their game and fowl, you can bet, was fresh. Peasants would not have been able to afford exotic spices to cover up tainted meat, even if they had wanted to. Likely, they would not have been able to afford the meat in the first place.

Although the dishes themselves may not have been as refined as the later dishes of the great French chefs, the food served in a Medieval French Feast would have been quite grand and elaborate, which 5 or 6 courses, called mets or aussiettes, followed by the entrement, which might have been quite the site. All sorts of "artful" and theatrical presentations were used, which to our eyes today would be a bit crazy. Imagine a peacock put on the table with its tail feathers still intact!

medieval banquet or feast. "Serving the Peacock", from woodcut in 1517 edition of Virgil

Serving the Peacock at a State Banquet
From a woodcut in a 1517 edition of Virgil

medieval banquet or feast. "Serving the Peacock", from woodcut in 1517 edition of Virgil

Serving the Peacock at a State Banquet
From a woodcut in a 1517 edition of Virgil

However, Taillevent wanted to rely more on the flavors of the foods themselves, which, ironically, we will see reflected in the nouvelle cuisine movement described later. Yet, when Taillevent was head cook to Charles VII, he managed feasts that would have made the magnificent affairs of a century earlier look dull. However, French cooking was nothing that would resemble the refined and systematic cooking that we know today until much later.

In the 17th century, that began to change. François Pierre de La Varenne (1615-1678) wrote the first book with organized recipes and cooking techniques in 1651, La Cuisinier François: a summary of the cooking techniques used in the households of the French aristocracy. It became a main chef's reference for over 150 years.

Carême (1784-1833) is known as the "father of haute cuisine" and, in his L'art de la cuisine Française au dix-neuvième siècle, he codified the French sauces2, which were handed down from Varenne, who is recognized as the chef who truly began haute cuisine. Before this, up to the late 1800's and beyond, it was often reported that there were only two French "mother" sauces: the white sauce ad the brown sauce. The white sauces is what we would call today a béchamel and the brown sauces was then, and still is, called espagnole, but more often today is called a demi-glace. Carême was also chef to such important figures as French diplomat Charles Maurice de Tallyrand-Perigord, Russia's Czar Alexander I, King George IV of England, and Baron James de Rothschild of France.

Georges-Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935) is called "the chef of kings and the king of chefs." He brought about a big change in the way food is served France. The traditional service à la française, which means "service in the French style," had food brought out all at once in a huge spread, which was quite magnificent but completely impractical for restaurants. Escoffier instituted service à la russe, or "service in the Russian style," which had courses brought to the tables one after another in a sequence, the way we are used to today.

Escoffier also organized restaurant menus and the kitchen, inventing the famous kitchen bridage, which was probably inspired by his time in the army. He worked for Cesar Ritz, the famous hotelier and the founder of the Carleton hotels in London and th Ritz in Paris. Perhaps most importantly, Escoffier helped tremendously to elevate cooking as a profession, by showing great concern for his fellow chefs, sending out many ambassadors to French cooking all over the world, and becoming the first true celebrity chef himself. Many people probably think that the celebrity chef was borne of Julia child; and there is no doubt that she was instrumental in popularizing chefs, but much is owed to Escoffier for the respect that chefs are given today, and the ability of a chef to become a recognized and celebrated person. He helped tremendously to elevate cooking as a profession.

There are a couple of books that are considered the bibles of haute cuisine, often used as texts and references in culinary schools and considered must-haves for any chef. One is Larousse Gastronomique, first published in 1938 but since updated and republished many times. This book is basically an encyclopedia of French cooking, with cooking techniques, ingredients, recipes, equipment, histories of food, and biographies of famous French chefs. Julia child once wrote that if she could only have on reference, Larousse Gastronomique would be it. If you are a culinary school student and you want to be worth your salt, you may want to pick up a copy, even if it is not a required part of your curriculum.

The other bible was written by our friend Auguste Escoffier, with several collaborators, who published it in 1903. Escoffier is often given credit for single-handedly codifying French cuisine in this work, but he is only one of many who added to the tradition, starting with the aformentioned Varenne in the 1600's. Still, his book became the universal reference for French technique and cuisine for generations of chefs. It was first published in English as The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery. Although it contains many recipes, it is more of a guide to French cooking than a book of recipes. The recipes are given in narrative form.

Nouvelle Cuisine

Nouvelle cuisine came about in the 1970's and was a movement away from the stuffy, and often stodgy, haute cuisine. The nouvelle style emphased fresher and lighter ingredients and an avoidance of heavy, rich sauces and foods. The portions were smaller and there was more emphasis on visual appeal through presentation. Although hauge cuisine had markedly improved the art of cooking, many chefs felt that the over-systematic traditions had gotten a little out of hand, curtailing inspiration and creativity and resulting in dishes which were, of course, dull and uninspired.

The beginnings of nouvelle cuisine are often credited to Fernand Point (1897-1955), the owner of La Pyramide, in Vienne, France. He was a perfectionist who would labor for years to perfect dishes before serving them and preferred simple and much lighter food. He had proteges who became quite famous themselves, such as Paul Boscuse, Jean and Pierre Troisgros, and Alain Chapel. Chef Michel Guérard, a champion of low-calorie food, was also an important central figure of the time, and several others made their marks.3 These chefs became quite influential in the 60's and 70's and ushered in nouvelle cuisine, rebelling against the heavy and complicated classical traditions. They went even further than Point, wanting dishes to be even more light and simplified. The heavy sauces thickened with flour were rejected and replaced with lighter and quicker ones. More emphasis was put on bringing out the natural flavors of the foods, rather than to cover them with heavy sauces and spices. The basic idea was that the food should be recognizable for what it is, presented intact rather than processed into a mélange of essences. Instead of plating at the table by waiters, which had often been the case with haute cuisine, these chefs placed a great emphasis on artful presentations done in advance and delivered to the patron as not only a dish, but, as Point would put it, a little marvel.

However, it is probably fair to say that this nouvelle cuisine was not actually new. These chefs were not the first to think that "things should taste like what they actually are." This rejection of disguised dishes began much earlier. In fact, Maurice Edmond Sailland who called himself Curnonsky, insisted on this. He was voted the prince des gastronomes, which he remained until his death in 1956. He furthermore co-authored a monumental 24 volume text with Marcel Rouff.

No matter how natural the progression toward nouvelle cuisine, it was not cooks who invented the name, but the food critics Henri Gault and Christian Millau, who had an annual restaurant guide and monthly magazine. The term, la nouvelle cuisine, actually dates back as far as 1742 as we can see from the image below, which is the cover page Menon's La nouvelle cuisine (1742), the 3rd volume of his Traité de la cuisine. Menon (1738-1795), was the most productive cook-book writer of the time. However, we should not make a big deal of the term nouvelle cuisine itself. He also used terms such as la cuisine moderné. Both terms are simply a rejection of "ancient cooking" and are quite ambiguous. The word nouvelle simply means new, after all. It can be either the feminine form of the adjective nouveau, which tells us that cuisine, as a noun, is a feminine one. Or, it can be a noun, meaning news, as in a "piece of news."

Cover page of Menon's La nouvelle cuisine (1742), the 3rd volume of his Traité de la cuisine
Cover page of Menon's La nouvelle cuisine (1742), the 3rd volume of his Traité de la cuisine

Anyway, as I began to say, Gaul and Millau first applied the term to the cooking of chefs such as Paul Boscue and Michael Guérard. In their 1973 issue of Nouveau guide Gault-Millau, they set forth the "ten commandments of nouvelle cuisine." These rules emphasized dishes made with seasonal and local ingredients, shorter cooking times, lighter sauces, and simpler menus. Not all of the commandments had to do with food, however. For instance, one of them had to do with having air-conditioning in restaurants. Although their term, new cooking, would never work by today's standards, being completely bland, ambiguous, and not in the least bit creative, it took off at the time.

As is so often the case, the pendulum began to swing back the other way. What began as a movement toward simpler dishes started becoming overly complicated and ornamented. It may have been inevitable because two central commandments of nouvelle cusine were at odds with each other: be minimalist and create new and innovative tastes and techniques. The drive to create often creates nothing more than extravagances, completely at odds with the wish to get back to basics.

If you've ever watched a chef competition on television and saw a competitor being chastised for his "80's" presentation, you have seen the fall out from nouvelle cuisine. Everything being ringed out and arranged in abstract and ornate arrangements was the order of the day in the 1980's and quickly became a source of ridicule for those who failed to move with the times. However, the better ideas from nouvelle cuisine have stuck around and lend themselves to a modern cookery that is moving forward, looking to fresh and local ingredients as the forefront of restaurant food; its excesses having been tossed aside. Yet, when you see the architectural and fragile presentations on some of today's fancy restaurant plates, along with little squiggles and blotches of brightly colored sauces from legions of squeeze bottles, you are seeing the continued influence of nouvelle cuisine.

1. Rosenthal, Saul H. French Words You Use Without Knowing It - The Combined Book. N.p.: CreateSpace Independent Platform, 2011.
2. The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1991.
3. Rossant, Juliette. Super Chef: The Making of the Great Modern Restaurant Empires. New York: Free, 2004.
4. LaCroix, Paul. A History of Manners, Customs and Dress During the Middle Ages and Renaissance Period. Bremen: Outlook Verlag, 2011.
5. Ruhlman, Michael. The Elements of Cooking: Translating the Chef's Craft for Every Kitchen. New York: Scribner, 2007.
6. Gisslen, Wayne. Professional Cooking. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011.
7. McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York: Scribner, 2004.
8. Kritzman, Lawrence D., Brian J. Reilly, and M. B. DeBevoise. The Columbia History of Twentieth-century French Thought. New York: Columbia UP, 2006.

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