In the interim between graduating college and going to Grenoble, I’ve had the unique opportunity to work in an immersive French environment without leaving my hometown. I work at a cafe run by a wonderful French couple from Versailles. Though all of these croissants have made me visit the gym more often, I can think of no better way of paying my bills, putting away money for France and learning about French language and culture before I make the move across the pond. Half of my job involves tension between American and French mentalities. It’s like one massive, multicultural, multilingual puzzle, and I am very blessed to be a part of it.
The very first thing I found out while working there is that “bonjour” is the most important word in the French language. Even if you don’t know anything else, it’s absolutely paramount to say “bonjour.” I think one of the reasons Americans and French people perceive the other as rude is because Americans forget to say a greeting (especially in a business environment), and French people get offended. Most of the time, I can spot an American right away because they skip the “hello” and go straight to ordering. For them, the interaction is primarily transactional, not relational which is definitely a cultural difference. Now I make sure to always greet servers even if they begin with “How can I help you?” because I do think it’s important to see and respect people even if “hello” is such a little word.
There are actually many typically American things that I didn’t recognize until I was able to compare cultures. One of those as to do with time. I want to run everywhere and get things done as quickly as possible. My boss, on the other hand, is constantly telling me “Calme, tranquille. Here is no fast food.” I want to do everything for everyone as fast as possible, but he insists that people can wait five minutes for good food. This is a huge difference between American and French kitchens. French restaurants used to be situated in people’s homes, and some of those traditions of respect, mutual generosity, and patience have remained. In other kitchens, I’ve only ever been praised for running (sometimes literally) to get things accomplished. I’ve had to learn that in the French approach to service, it’s important to take the time to rest and not have the “slave mentality” that my wellbeing doesn’t matter because the customer is king.
Americans also tend to want to customize their meals and take things home. They ask to add or subtract ingredients especially if they don’t know what those ingredients are like béchamel. Before, I didn’t think it was unusual to ask for a to-go box, but now I can’t help but consider the waste of so many boxes. This past week, one woman requested six boxes for four small pastries. Americans are also much louder in general. Whether they are talking or enjoying their meal, there are more sounds involved. Verbalized expressions of enjoyment like “mmm” after tasting something good are not universal even though they seemed ubiquitous before. Actually, the lack of conversation while working is one of the things I love about the culture of our kitchen. I can completely concentrate on what I’m doing and not talk. My boss considers that “good ambiance.”
In addition to learning about language and culture, I also have cooking lessons. I can now make things like béchamel, mousse chocolat, cheesecake, tartes aux pommes, and different kinds of quiche. I’m currently working on crêpes. I begin by translating the recipe; learn the way it looks, feels, and smells; memorize it; and finally perfect it. I’m only a “good chef” when I really know a recipe and can adjust the ingredients to create the perfect balance of taste without any help. Sometimes, I’m given recipes which are just lists of ingredients, or else I have to figure out things like why something like snow is mentioned (stiffly whipped egg whites) or why it matters that the egg is on the plate (sunny side up). Tablespoons are soup spoons, teaspoons are coffee spoons, and other things are measured in grams. That being said, every recipe is made “to taste,” so measurements are continually adjusted. It takes time and practice to learn how things work together, a balancing act that has as many implications about life in general as it does cooking. Though I make many, many mistakes, I love the tactile nature and process of cooking, the feeling of well-floured dough at just the right temperature to pad out into molds, the smell fresh orange zest in chocolate, the way a perfectly crafted dessert could be a piece of art because it’s so beautiful.
Apart from little cultural differences and the recipes in my book, the most important thing I’ve learned is that I have to manage my expectations about France and French people. It’s an entire country that cannot fit into the few Audrey Hepburn films set in France that I watched as a kid. There are generalizations that can be made about the importance of respect and the way businesses work, but the France in my head isn’t the one in reality. French culture is much more diverse and multilayered than can be explored in our bite-size cafe. Overall, I find that cultivating the mentality of a learner is produces the best results.