Lost in Translation, in the Kitchen
- Lam Thuy Vo/The Wall Street Journal
- A chef cuts up ham at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon.
Inside the kitchen of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, all the orders are called out in French: “canard” is duck; “homard” is lobster.
That’s not surprising — it is a French restaurant, after all. But it isn’t in Paris; it’s in Hong Kong, where most of the staff speak Cantonese and English. In fact, 90% of the employees in the kitchen are Hong Kong Chinese, says L’Atelier chef and native-French speaker Michel del Burgo. Another 5% are Japanese, the remaining 5% are French.
In the L’Atelier kitchen, says Sherman Chan, a chef who worked there for a year in 2008: “You say ‘Oui, chef,’ whether or not you understand [the request], and then turn around to ask for a translation. That’s the way it works.” Ms. Chan is a Hong Kong-native who’s mother tongue is Cantonese. She now works in Caprice, another Hong Kong restaurant. “It’s not very efficient, but eventually you learn to make your way around.”
Language is a new problem in Asian kitchens. In the past, when they were staffed mostly by locals, it wasn’t an issue. But a more integrated and international food world — a growing number of Western celebrity chefs in the region and Chinese restaurants expanding overseas — has changed that. Kitchens now are often staffed by an eclectic mix of nationalities.
Every kitchen in the Fook Lam Moon Group, the Cantonese-cuisine restaurant with seven overseas locations — four in Japan and three in China — is headed by a native-Hong Kong, Cantonese-speaking chef. In Japan, roughly 60% of the staff are Cantonese-speakers from Hong Kong, says Fook Lam Moon managing director Michelle Chui, with the remainder split evenly between Japanese and mainland Chinese, who speak Mandarin. So the kitchens in Japan are trilingual — Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese. In its Hong Kong restaurants, however, all full-time employees speak Mandarin and Cantonese.
“There are no language prerequisites to being hired,” says Ms. Chui. “However, language and cultural differences can be a problem, since we do have instances where there’s misunderstanding amongst staff. Especially in a kitchen, which can have a rather heated atmosphere.”
Of course, some cooking terms transcend language: Classic French sauces, for instance, shouldn’t require a translation.
Says Ms. Chan, “If someone says ‘Béarnaise’ in a French kitchen, the cook needs to know it’s butter, eggs and tarragon…”
But other words are lost in translation. Take “umami,” now commonly known as the “fifth taste,” beyond, sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Working chefs today know what umami is — but ask them to define it in their native language, and they may stumble to find the words.
“In a certain sense, food defies languages — the language of food is taste,” says David Thompson, the executive chef of Thai restaurant Nahm in Bangkok, where Thai is spoken frequently in the kitchen. “But how else will you look deeper into a cuisine and understand how to use ingredients unless you are talking to Thais? And when you talk to Thais, you have to speak in Thai.”
Since moving to Thailand in the 1980s, Mr. Thompson has taught himself to read and write in the language. Today, the chef is fluent — “But I write like a 4-year-old,” he says.
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