Help me learn advanced French food and restaurant vocabulary.
February 16, 2013 11:59 AM   Subscribe

Please recommend books, websites, and other resources to learn more advanced French food and restaurant vocabulary, so that I can read menus and cookbooks, navigate restaurants, and describe food ("salty," "sweet," etc.).

I want to be able to read a French menu or cookbook and understand it as well as I do in English. I have basic knowledge of French food vocabulary, as in what they teach in the food unit of a seventh-grade French class (main fruits and vegetables, other common food items like bread, cake, ice cream, etc.), though I could use some refreshing.

I've looked through the French language section at some bookstores and it seems like food and restaurant vocabulary is limited to the basics, and confined to a chapter or two within a much larger general vocabulary book. I'm looking for something more advanced and food-specific.

Specific areas of interest:
— Advanced food item vocabulary (beyond the aforementioned basics), covering both ingredients and dishes: buttermilk, stew, pork belly, fried rice, squab, graham cracker, spices, various kinds of fish, etc.
— Cooking vocabulary: stir, sift, boil, dice, brine, measuring cups, frying pan, etc.
— Vocabulary for food descriptions: sweet, salty, tough, undercooked, medium-rare, grainy, etc.
— Restaurant vocabulary, basic through advanced: tip, napkin, wine glass, tasting menu, wine pairings, non-alcoholic drink pairings, bar area, etc.
— French/English menus: copies of the same menu in French and English, which I think I'd find both neat and useful.
— Food writing in French, ideally with an English translation available as well. Books, blogs, etc. The writing might be too advanced for me to understand now (especially until I learn more food vocabulary), but I can still use it as a goal.

Can you recommend any websites, books, or other resources related to those areas? Accuracy is important. (I stopped using Memrise when I realized that there were occasionally mistakes in the spellings of the user-generated French vocabulary.) If it's relevant, I'm in the Boston area.

Thanks in advance!
posted by The Girl Who Ate Boston to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I think that, although not focused on French cooking and certainly no textbook, Bourdain's enjoyable Kitchen Confidential certainly introduced me to some of the French terms and particularly how they are used in real life commercial conditions. Perhaps more accurately, the book gave me enough of a knowledge base that I could better understand how to delve into aspects of French cooking about which I otherwise wouldn't have known.
posted by bz at 12:08 PM on February 16, 2013

It is all in French, but what you need is this book, La cuisine de réféference. Though it is all in French, there are oodles of pictures accompanying a ridiculous number of classic French recipes and cooking and presentation techniques. Besides the pictures and Frenchiness of it, this book is used in a lot of culinary schools here in France and you see well-thumbed copies of it in restaurant kitchens. I know because that is how I first found out about it!
posted by whatzit at 12:09 PM on February 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Please ignore my above answer as it is woefully insufficient.
posted by bz at 12:10 PM on February 16, 2013

Maybe Crown Publishing's Americanized version of Larousse Gastronomique is closer to what you are seeking.
posted by bz at 12:15 PM on February 16, 2013

Belatedly, I notice you're in Boston. One of Harvard-Radcliffe's libraries has a massive collection of cookbooks and menus, and the papers of Julia Child, among other food things. I never visited but I used to work with one of their historians. If I remember well, the Schlesinger library is one of the few libraries at Harvard open to the public. At the very least, they have seminars.
posted by whatzit at 12:22 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Book recommendation.

How to use the book (because otherwise it is just a cookbook)
Get a provincial map of France. Start marking all the recipes by region as well as the ingredients used. You'll see some staples used across regions, as well as some ingredients that only appear in specific regions, and/or for specific seasonal dishes. Expand your recipe base by looking up other recipes and the roots of where they come from. Drop on wine and cheese, and you'll soon start to see how the french supply chain works. From this, you should be able to start breaking down a french dish and recognizing what makes a burgundy from Burgundy (and why), the types of seafood particular to Normandy, and a multitude of geographic reasons that French food tastes the way it does. If you can, start sourcing ingredients from those regions. From learning the country food, you'll start to make sense of what elevates food up to the next level...

Also, if you can, go sit down and talk with Chef Tony Maws. Given what you do and your level of interest, he is probably the closest accessible expert in Boston (Cambridge).
posted by Nanukthedog at 12:33 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you haven't already found marmiton you should check it out. I'm a big fan of using google images for ingredients I'm unsure of. Also, a good French dictionary is helpful though can be a bit difficult to decipher since it is totally in French. I like using the French dictionary instead of a French to English dictionary because there are some words that don't really translate. Lastly if you want practice get a subscription to Régal, a great French cooking magazine. They will ship to the US. It includes a great section that focuses on specific ingredients (e.g lemons from Menton).
posted by newsomz at 12:51 PM on February 16, 2013

Accuracy is important. (I stopped using Memrise when I realized that there were occasionally mistakes in the spellings of the user-generated French vocabulary.)

If accuracy was a problem with user-generated Memrise lists, the solution is to make your own Memrise lists. I only use SRS decks that I have made myself.

I am a multilinguist with about the same general vocabulary across my languages but different specialized vocabulary depending on the language. For example, my Greek has a lot of theological vocabulary while my Japanese has a lot of legal vocabulary. And as it happens, my French has a fair amount of culinary vocabulary.

I think you are making this more complicated than it needs to be. You can do this yourself by reading what you want to read. Find a French menu that you would like to read. When you find a word you don't know, look it up. You can do the reverse as well. For example you say you want to learn the word for "boil". It is really simple to go to a dictionary and voilà! You will find "bouillir". Then add these words to your Memrise decks (or other SRS deck) and study away.

It is hard to tell from your question if you speak any French proficiency at all, but I take that it is pretty limited. I am sorry to say that there is no shortcut to language learning, so if you want to be able to read French recipes and menus, you are going to need to learn French. Just going through a deck of culinary nouns and verbs alone will not help you follow the instruction of "Faire blanchir les germes de soja, pendant 30 secondes, dans l'eau bouillante. Egoutter et réserver." This was the first step from the first recipe I pulled from Allrecipes French. If your general French is good enough, browse recipe sites such as that to learn the vocabulary from the recipes. If your general French isn't good enough, you need to make it good enough.
posted by Tanizaki at 1:09 PM on February 16, 2013

A fantastic French food blogger is Clotilde Dusoulier who writes Chocolate and Zucchini which contains general writing about food as well as recipes. Most of her entries have a version française as well.
posted by kitkatcathy at 1:31 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I should clarify: I'm currently enrolled in Intermediate French II at my university, and plan on taking Advanced French I and II down the road. I have a basic grasp of grammar and the present, imperfect, and passé composé verb tenses.

For example, without a dictionary, I can roughly translate: "Faire blanchir les germes de soja, pendant 30 secondes, dans l'eau bouillante. Egoutter et réserver." ——> "To make _____ (blanche?) the _____, for thirty seconds, in boiling water. _____ and _____ (save?)." But I can't translate it fully because of gaping chasms in my food vocabulary, like "les germes de soja." I believe I have enough of a general French-language foundation to begin making use of additional food and cooking vocabulary, though I definitely plan to continue improving my overall French vocabulary as well.

tl;dr: This cooking and food vocabulary is intended to supplement my in-progress understanding of the French language, not begin it. I apologize for not making that clear in my question.

Thanks for the awesome recommendations so far! Keep them coming! :)
posted by The Girl Who Ate Boston at 2:13 PM on February 16, 2013

In the example above to fill in your gaps I would:

1. Google images search of the ingredient (germes de soja)
2. Use dictionary to look up egoutter & reserver.

You'll find that most recipes use the same words over and over and soon you'll be able to read them with ease. It just takes a little practice.
posted by newsomz at 2:23 PM on February 16, 2013

Given your existing French skills, I think it would probably be fastest to get a copy of Larousse Gastronomique and make your own SRS deck (on memrise, or Anki, or whatever) of every new word you come across.

In my experience, specialist vocabularies aren't that large and you may find that after the first 50 recipes you're barely adding new words anymore because you've already acquired the bulk of French culinary vocabulary.

Luckily, recipes and menus are grammatically quite simple and I think that you should be able to from where you are now to where you want to be in about six weeks or so.

For food writing: Get the Michelin guide in French, get the one for France - I would suggest getting the French language version of the guide for where you live but the guides for North America are not very good and you might as well get something which is actually useful.
posted by atrazine at 2:33 PM on February 16, 2013

I am having problems finding a version of Masterchef France that is viewable internationally - you can see a few clips on youtube but otherwise you need a French VPN or torrents. Anyway: you will know the format if you have ever seen it. The French version is particularly exacting but gives a good insight into modern French cooking culture. Since you can see what they are cooking it is often quite easy to work out what is being said.

In terms of a general sites for improving your French for free I am a big fan of Coffeebreak French podcasts and Duolingo. Both of these go from beginner to advanced level so you can jump in wherever you are happy.

Finally just searching youtube for "recettes de cuisine" will turn up a whole load of French people guiding you through cooking them.
posted by rongorongo at 2:47 PM on February 16, 2013

Following on from my last suggestions - the recipes from hervecuisine on Youtube allow you to select a transcript of what is being said which gives you the material in writing. Pretty cool
posted by rongorongo at 2:51 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Faire blanchir les germes de soja, pendant 30 secondes, dans l'eau bouillante. Egoutter et réserver.

You see "faire" used a lot in recipes. It just indicates an action you need to take. Faire blanchir is to blanch. The instructions for blanching are included (some recipes wouldn't do that much for you): plunge the bean sprouts into boiling water for 30 seconds.

Egoutter et réserver – drain and set aside.

There's a certain rhythm to recipe instructions that ought to clue you in to a lot of the vocabulary.

As for menus in English and French, I recommend you look up Montreal restaurants, because many of them have online menus in both English and French. Start here and with a little clicking around you should find both French and English menus for a wide range of cuisines.
posted by zadcat at 3:37 PM on February 16, 2013

Now that it's clear that you have a degree of intermediate French proficiency, I stand with my first comment that you are making this more complicated than it is. I think it is very unlikely that you are going to find a book of Advance French Culinary Vocabulary because very little of the vocabulary is truly specialized. Specialized bilingual dictionaries tend to be legal, medical, or other fields that have extensive jargon. "Boil" and "mince" don't meet that bar.

I do not know if French is your first foreign language or not, but at some point in language study, you come to the place where you have to take charge of where you are going to go with the language. Since you want to be able to read menus and recipes, the way to be able to do that is to read menus and recipes. When you come across a term you don't know, such as "les germes de soja", look it up. It takes about two seconds to do it with Google Translate. (I hate to spoil the surprise, but the answer is "bean sprouts") You could make yourself a vocabulary list for an SRS program very quickly and easily. For example, if you want to learn how to say "sweet" in French, find it in a dictionary and then you will find "doux" and "sucré" so you can now make a Memrise card.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:18 AM on February 17, 2013

rongorongo - that closed caption feature for hervecuisine on youtube is awesome! I'm always looking for ways to improve my French and I love to cook so this is perfect. Thanks.

OP - if you're ever in Paris and want to take a cooking class, take a look at Coin Cuisine. It's a tiny cooking supply store that offers casual cooking classes for locals, it's all in French. Certainly, I didn't understand everything being said but the nice thing about cooking is that it's visual. The chef/owner does the cooking class and his wife runs the store. Classes are small and everyone in the three classes I took was French. I did a market day class that was terrific. We went to the market together and the chef talked about French produce (regional differences and techniques) and as a group we picked food for l'entree, le plat principal, et le dessert. It was hands on, fun, low pressure, not touristy, not expensive and all in French with a classically trained chef.

(There are a lot of Paris cooking classes taught in English geared toward tourists and, of course, a lot of formal French cooking classes offered in French.)

Librairie Gourmande is a very good cookbook store in Paris if you want a store with wide range of books on French cooking including scholarly ones.
posted by shoesietart at 9:44 AM on February 17, 2013

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