Heard. Behind. Corner. 86’d. Yes, chef. With last year’s pop culture foray into depicting (fictional) restaurant kitchens in places such as hit FX TV show The Bear or dark satire movie The Menu, restaurant speak seems to be everywhere. Terms usually only heard while buzzing around the back of house are carrying over into social media and, yes, everyday life.
But popular culture’s adoption of restaurant slang begs the question of whether its usage by non-industry people rankles those who rely on the terms for both efficiency, and — perhaps in a way — kitchen camaraderie. A sort of restaurant cosplay, if you will. David Barzelay, chef and founder of Michelin-starred Lazy Bear in the Mission District, says it doesn’t bother him when people use restaurant terms — it bothers him when people don’t use restaurant lingo. “Anybody who’s gotten used to it in the kitchen is deeply frustrated when people don’t use terms like ‘behind’ in the grocery store, or in their home kitchens,” Barzelay says. “If The Bear could make an average grocery store patron say ‘behind’ before walking behind you, or make my wife say it in our home kitchen when walking behind me — that would be a big win.”
Barzelay admits there may be some cooks or chefs who want to gatekeep the restaurant industry lingo, but he’s not one of them. “I think to some extent — all these terms like ‘heard’ — those are things that we as cooks adopt consciously, or unconsciously,” he says, “almost like part of the uniform or perhaps as a point of pride. Nobody says that if you work in a kitchen, you have to get tattoos; I don’t have any tattoos. But for some reason, a lot of cooks end up getting tattoos and I think it’s kind of this opting into a certain culture.”
Ramen Shop chef de cuisine Chelsea Nichols agrees. She, too, would prefer that more people adopt the straightforward and practical sensibilities of the kitchen. “Since I started working in this industry, I immediately felt like the things that we do in restaurants should be translated to outside life,” Nichols says. “I say ‘behind’ at the grocery store and I think for a while people were kind of shocked when I would say it. I think we, as cooks, want all people to adopt more of those things at home, even with our own organization of the fridge and pantry.”
Chef Spencer Horovitz, who runs the pop-up Hadeem and has worked in restaurants such as Slug and Itria, has heard more people use the lingo outside of restaurants, albeit in a joking manner, such as “heard” or “heard that.” Although Horovitz says the restaurant style of “immediate communication” has negatively affected how he communicates with non-industry friends — he was recently reminded that banking on a response text within five minutes is “not a normal expectation” — he does think the real world could use a dose of restaurant lingo on a daily basis. In fact, Horovitz added one more term he wished others would add to their vocabulary: Drawer. “Cornering is a fundamental skill I wish everyone had, honestly,” Horovitz says. “‘Reaching behind,’ ‘reaching in front,’ saying ‘drawer’ when you pull a drawer out. I almost get slammed in the hip every time someone opens a drawer near me — so I would hope that more people would do it.”
Horovitz says the usage of restaurant lingo in the kitchen can have a sarcastic, in-house, dry sense of humor to it, it is mostly done with safety in mind. “I love democratizing this language because it usually gets the point across really well,” Horovitz says. “The whole point of efficient kitchen language comes from the hierarchical background of very organized kitchens that are supposed to model a militaristic system. So you’ll see in the military it’s very similar language, but [in restaurants] we’re communicating as our physical bodies move through space to prevent people from getting stabbed, like when that happens in The Bear.”
As Barzelay points out, food, chefs, and restaurants in pop culture have been part of the media landscape for the last 30 years, from the Food Network to Top Chef and the advent of online food media, that predate The Bear and The Menu. But it’s all reflective of creating more visibility into the profession. “I think if other people recognize that culture as cool or deserving of respect,” Barzelay says, “or it’s something they want to borrow a little of the cachet from, then I think that mostly raises the profile of our profession, rather than diminishing.”