I’m not learning the kind of French I intended to.
The other night on one of my days off, I ordered a cocktail at an upscale restaurant that I had never heard of before. It was a mixture of rum and spirits with fruit juice. It sounded interesting but a little too sweet for my taste. I asked the server if it was dégueulasse (deh-guh-lass), which I thought meant ‘gross’.
I hear it all the time in the kitchen and I just assumed it meant bad or unsavory. I just wanted to know if the cocktail was good! I really upset the server who stormed away after correcting my French and telling me never to use that word in public. How was I supposed to know? The word means ‘filthy’.
My French friends at the table burst out laughing after the server vanished and then they explained the word to me. They thought my little colloquial version of ‘gross’ was funny. But there I was totally in the dark wondering why I had just caused such a reaction to the extent that the server was replaced by another young man.
And then there’s the word ‘putain’ (poo-tan) which means ‘whore’. Every time some one messes up a dish in the kitchen they exclaim, “Oh putain!”. I thought the word meant ‘oops!’ or ‘oh brother!’. I hear the word constantly throughout the day so it’s just become part of my vocabulary. If I drop something on the floor I say, “Oh putain.” If the chefs are yelling at me I say, “Oh putain” and put my head down and work faster. If some one is being a jerk I say, “Oh putain” in exasperation and walk way.
But I don’t think I was supposed to use it on the crowded the metro during rush hour when I dropped my cell phone on the floor. Because when I exclaimed, “oh putain” and then crouched down to look for my phone in between people grabbing onto bars for balance I caused some funny stares, a few giggles, and some downright mean looks.
So now you have two words you can put together into a sentence. Here’s how the chef’s do it in the kitchen: Oh putain! Ça c’est dégueulasse! (oh whore! That’s filthy!)
But wait there’s more. Oh yes, there’s a lot more bad words in the kitchen and I haven’t even begun to really get down and dirty. But first let me fill you in on the obligatory inbetween words that will no doubt pair with the spicier bad ones. Qu’est-ce que c’est ça? (keh-skuh-say-sah) literally translated means ‘what is that there?’. This is one of my Chef’s favorite phrases and he has a way of putting the fear of God into you just with that one rhetorical question.
If you’re being asked ‘what is that there?’ by the Chef, then you already know what is there. You know it is something totally inedible that is an embarrassment to the reputation of the restaurant. God forbid, the Michelin reviewers should walk in while you’re serving that plate of shit. Normally the sentence is accompanied with the rolling of eyes and an outstretched finger-pointing directly to the merde that you have just created.
So here’s the new phrase altogether now: Oh putain! Qu’est-ce que c’est ça? Ça c’est dégueulasse (Oh whore! What is that there? That’s filthy!)
I know you know the French word merde that I mentioned above. Everyone in the world knows that word. It’s a funny little word for dog doo isn’t it? But there’s another way of twisting it into something a little less cutesy. C’est de la merde is like dégueulasse but means ‘it’s of the shit’ or ‘it’s a pile of crap’. Again, this phrase is normally accompanied with the obligatory rolling of the eyes and outstretched finger-pointing to the dog doo you’ve just plated for some famous client. It can be tagged on behind the phrase: ça c’est dégueulasse for added punctuation.
In other words, if you didn’t understand (because you’re an idiot) that what you slaved over for five hours to create is disgusting, you will certainly get it through your thick skull that it’s a pile of poop.
Hallelujah! Now we’re really getting somewhere: Oh putain! Qu’est-ce que c’est? QU’EST-CE C’EST ÇA? Ça c’est dégueulasse – c’est de la merde. (Oh whore! What is that there? WHAT IS THAT THERE? That’s filthy – it’s a pile of crap!)
Now remember that cooking in a French kitchen is like being in the military. Not only is the fact that you messed up your roti de veau (roasted veal) pointed out for the whole staff to witness, but also the fact that you’re a butt hole.
Well you’ve got to be a butt hole if you’ve just messed up something as basic as roti de veau right? And the chefs also have to ensure you clearly understand the pecking order. If you screwed the pooch on the veal then you are definitely in the merde pile. The word for butt hole is conard (coh-nard) or if you’re a female butt hole its connasse (coh-nass). Isn’t that nice and undiscriminating of the French? How kind of them to give women their own feminine version of the word. I think the female version sounds much prettier.
And of course if you’re a gros connard, then you’re a ‘big butt hole’. Now before we put the whole new sentence together I’d like to introduce one last phrase, fait chier (fay-shay), which is truly grotesque. It means ‘to take a poo’, but really it is more equivalent to our “oh f&*k” American expression. This expression can be used in the same way, “Oh putain” is used, but normally expresses a higher degree of agitation.
So here it is, the grande finale, the final sentence that will truly enable you to call it like it is in a 3-star French kitchen: Oh putain! Fait chier! Conard, qu’est-ce c’est ça? QU’EST-CE C’EST ÇA? Ça c’est dégueulasse – c’est de la merde! Oh putain. (Oh whore! Oh f*&k! Butt hole, what is that there? WHAT IS THAT THERE? That’s filthy – it’s a pile of crap! Oh whorrrrre!)
And what do you answer back when you hear this lovely sentence breathed inches from your face by a screaming, sweaty, red-faced French chef that has pulsing veins bulging out from his neck?
Oui chef! (yes, chef)