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Kruse/Thorn: Calling out overused restaurant jargon

In a monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry. For this installment, they discuss obnoxious restaurant jargon.

Nancy Kruse
Nancy Kruse
Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse says language used by some restaurants toes a fine line between appreciation and patronization.

We’re in the midst of an extremely contentious political race, where the jacked-up oratory and overheated doublespeak are flying thick and fast. 

This environment provides me with a convenient excuse to take on a pet peeve of mine, which is the increasing jargon creep in our own industry. While not as noisy as all the political bloviating, these earnest, rhetorical efforts at culinary correctness have created a contemporary restaurant vocabulary that’s almost as annoying, from my perspective.  

A few examples, some taken from the pages of NRN, will illustrate what I mean. There’s the emerging fast-casual operation that practices “conscientious sourcing,” the new-age steakhouse with “mindful meat and fish (sic),” and the Northeastern independent that touts its “thoughtfully sourced, honest food.” 

All of these beat the thoughtless, mindless, dishonest and unprincipled alternatives, I guess, but I wish the marketing and PR folks would put down the thesaurus. 

And while we’re on the subject of gastronomic grandiloquence, where the heck did all these curators come from? Everywhere you look, someone is busily “curating” menus, wine and cocktail lists, and restaurant experiences. Not too long ago, these folk were simply chefs, bartenders — maybe mixologists in hipper places — and general managers. Are we talking about the same people, or have they been replaced by Ph.D.-wielding art history and anthropology majors who finally found gainful employment? 

And please don’t get me started on the whole “foodways” thing. I was reading a review of a new book about the struggles of homemakers during the 1930s that referenced Depression-era foodways. 

Foodways? Holy smoke, those poor folks were struggling to figure out how to put basic sustenance on the table; little did they know that they would become bit players in a larger field of study. 

Don’t misunderstand me: I fully appreciate that food, how we grow and cook it, the place it occupies in our lives and how all these factors change over time, constitutes a legitimate and important cultural phenomenon, one that has created employment and enjoyment for both of us.  But it has also opened the door to the invasion of the academicians, who’ve flocked in to write treatises and dissertations, while the real people are doing the real work in the fields and factories, kitchens and dining rooms. I don’t want to step on any academic toes here, but I think there can be a fine line between appreciation and patronization. 

We’ve talked in the past of trendy but meaningless menu promises like farm to table, craft or artisanal, which come into vogue, create some marketing warm-and-fuzzies, and then get replaced by the latest catchphrases du jour.  

Just as I believe that consumers want plainspoken presidential candidates, I honestly believe that they prefer plainspoken menus. But perhaps I’m off base on this, and I’m wondering what you think. 

Am I being too critical, or do you share my exasperation? Which way do you vote on this question of culinary correctness, Bret?

Restaurant jargon reaches fever pitch 

(Continued from page 1)

Bret Thorn
Bret Thorn
NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn responds to Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse’s take on restaurant jargon.

Actually, Nancy, I find this election cycle to be far more annoying than culinary jargon creep, but that’s only because the current presidential race is a national embarrassment that makes conversation about other irritants seem kind of trivial. 

Nonetheless, it is our job to report on the food trends of the day, and just as I’d like political journalists to do their job by calling out candidates on their lies and hate mongering, we, too, must call out the ludicrous excesses in our field of coverage. 

I mean, what exactly is mindful meat? Meat is dead, Nancy. It can’t be mindful. Conversely, how would a food and beverage program not be curated? To curate means to select items that will be displayed or presented, traditionally in museums, but these days also on websites and other cloud-based forums. 

Do restaurants select the food and drink that they’ll offer and arrange it in ways they hope their customers will like? Of course they do; they don’t just ask their distributors to bring whatever ingredients they have lying around and then dump them on the floor for customers to paw over. 

If everyone’s curating, there’s no need to call it that. Just call it “running a restaurant.”

I don’t think I’d call this sort of jargon culinary correctness, however. Sure, part of it has to do with the torturing — excuse me, enhanced interrogation — of our language that’s been going on over the past couple of decades, and that requires me to refer to restaurants that offer inexpensive food to people out of drive-thru windows as “quick service” rather than “fast food.” But I think it really has to do more with the fact that more Americans than ever before put a lot of thought into what they eat.

So while you and I might assume that all restaurants do, in fact, think carefully about what food they’re buying and how to prepare and sell it, some people might think that only Johnny’s Adorable House of Thoughtful Eats, or whatever, does that. That provides the opportunity for marketers to call something marvelous (“They care about what they buy!”) when it’s really quite ordinary.

It’s like how those of us who have been doing this for a while know that broth is generally made from bones, but people who just discovered food as part of their workout routine find that very idea to be enthralling, which is why we had that bone broth fad last year.

With the growing interest in food by so many people, there’s a growing demand for people to market it and report on it. Unfortunately, many people hired to do that don’t know very much about food. 

With little knowledge of their own, and a pressing desire to distinguish their brands, some marketers grasp at straws, fall back on clichés, or make things up. And some food writers, still flabbergasted by their new knowledge that asparagus is a seasonal vegetable, eat it right up. 

Maybe that’s why publicists in San Francisco still tell me in press releases that their clients — independent restaurants — use local, seasonal produce. 

Really? Do they cook it and put it on a plate, too?

Every independent restaurant in the Bay Area, and many chains there — and many restaurants in every other major American city, too, by the way — use local, seasonal food, so it’s not a selling point, but at least it’s accurate.

More troubling are the inaccurate characterizations of food and how we get it, like the notion that some food isn’t conscientiously sourced. What operators are conscientious of might vary from one restaurateur to another, but almost all of them take sourcing seriously.

Then there are just foolish descriptions: I recently got a pitch that described bacon as “juicy.”

Bacon might be a lot of things, Nancy, but it is never, ever juicy.

Still, although the jargon is a pain, and sometimes mystifying, it is also a sign that more and more people are interested in their food. That might bring out hordes of nattering rubes, but we can hope that as they mature they will learn to use their words more wisely, and we can talk about this issues of the day reasonably once again.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News. E-mail her at [email protected]

All Soundcloud images in this article are sourced from Thinkstock.

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