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June 07, 2017

Infrequently Asked Questions: What does 'gourmet' mean?

Plus, the annoying rise of the word 'foodie'

On the menu at breakfast: pancakes, French toast and -- hold up -- a "gourmet" omelet.

Perhaps you're intrigued by the description, but you're likely just as much confused.

To get a rundown on what "gourmet" actually means as an adjective, we reached out to Jonathan Deutsch, professor of culinary arts and food science at Drexel University's School of Hospitality and Sports Management, for an answer. 

It can be infuriating when you see 'gourmet' listed as a descriptor when it doesn't seem to actually say anything about the food. What does 'gourmet' mean in an actual sense?

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It's a good question. It means almost nothing, in the same way a lot of food terms are often used -- like "natural," which means absolutely nothing. Everything is natural; anything can be gourmet. What it also means is paying slightly more than paying for something that wasn't labeled gourmet. In reality, it's a term that has been around for a few hundred years and it used to be a little more derogatory. For example, "gourmand," mean[s] someone who is gluttonous and really overly enjoyed food. And, over the last century or so, gourmand has kind of kept that meaning of someone who has been a big eater, and gourmet has been used to mean sort of upscale, discerning -- I hate to use the word "foodie," but foodie. It's one of these terms used to denote a premium or selective product, and sometimes these products are premium and selective, and sometimes it's convenient for a purveyor to make you think it's a special, hand-selected, upscale type of product.

From what language does it derive?

It's French. It's from the same root as "groom," grommet, an able-handed groomsman or servant. It really took off. It's been around a couple hundred years, but it took off in the U.S. with the launch of Gourmet magazine, which was in 1941. And that coincided with a couple trends happening in the U.S. that were really important at that time. One is the rise of air travel. Taking a trip to Europe went from a once-in-a-lifetime feat for the middle class to something that could be done with relative ease. You had the rise of the middle class and the rise of telecommunications -- radio and then TV, making vicarious experiences of the rest of the world much more possible. And then you also had Americans who had been in World War II, and even World War I, who were stationed in Europe who had eaten in France and Italy and elsewhere in Europe and had been exposed to new ideas. 

Along with the rise of the middle class and suburban sprawl and home ownership, that really allowed people to define themselves as "gourmet," and you had experiences in fine dining that were previously reserved for the aristocracy becoming more accessible. You could hop on a plane and eat French food and recreate it in a home kitchen. It really did create a "gourmet culture" that was not part of mainstream pop culture previously.

In a way, it sounds like it comes from an era when there was a line drawn between basic and premium.

Yeah, I think it was a sort of rarified term, but it became much more accessible. So, I think previously someone with my job, as a professor, would not have been able to access those gourmet expanses. Now it becomes popularized and attainable for more people.

I've also heard that gourmet denotes any American dish with a twist to it. Have you heard that?

Yeah, it can. Obviously, it's used a lot in French cuisine -- that's the origin of the term. But I think what it tends to be used very loosely for things that are sort of twists on classic dishes. If a pizza is tomato sauce and cheese, a gourmet pizza may have expensive cheese, or exotic cheese or, you know, special cured meats or truffles -- to upscale it and elevate it.

To the point, I guess, is anyone serious about culinary arts using the word "gourmet" to describe their food?

I don't think so. I think it's a little outdated. I don't see it much. I see it a lot but I don't see it a lot in selective circles. I guess part of it is the context. So, you could say "chef," and I think that connotes someone with fine skills and pedigree and training. 

Gourmet salad, you may roll your eyes and wonder the difference between a gourmet salad and just a really good salad, but I'm hearing -- I don't love this term -- but "foodie" is used a lot more to describe things that in the '80s might've been called gourmet. They're called "foodie." Gourmet has either lost some of its power or it's outdated -- if I said 'Let's meet for dinner at a really gourmet restaurant," you wouldn't take it seriously.

The other thing is audience might matter. I feel like I'm more likely to see it at a restaurant in a small town as a marketing thing -- to advertise they're not serving Plain Jane stuff.

Right, and I think it does still work to say you're being more thoughtful about things like ingredient selection. But I think at one point it was more the cutting edge, the deserved higher-status cuisine that was rightly called gourmet. And I think now it's like, "Here's our attempt at dressing this up a little bit."