Memories of France for most of us are irretrievably linked to the high quality meals and the fine produce we see in shops and markets. As can be expected, food plays an important role in all aspects of French life, including business. The French talk about food, new restaurants and reviews just as Americans discuss the latest ball game or the league position of their favorite team. The latest editions of the Michelin or the Gault et Millau food guides provoke as much press coverage in France as the Superbowl does in the USA. Capable of long discussion on the merits or demerits of produce or dishes from a particular region, French conversations often sound convoluted to foreigners. How something is said often is as important as the content. This is alien to many foreigners for whom conversation is a staccato means of expressing a point of view.
Business meals in the USA invariably are hurried events, the purpose frequently being to finalize a deal. Quality is usually equated with snobbery, location, and price. For this reason many of the “top” restaurants in NYC are either a gastronomic disaster or extremely bad value. Not so in France, where food is taken seriously. A typical French executive uses a business lunch in a manner totally different to an American counterpart. Typically, meals are used as a means of “breaking the ice” (briser la glace) with a business contact to preparer le terrain for further contact. The choice of restaurant, number of courses and wines ordered are signals of the importance given to the event and one’s own position in the company’s hierarchy i.e. how much one is allowed spend on expenses. A meeting at a little-known restaurant serving good food is an indication that you care enough about your guest to invite him/her to share a “new” place. Familiarity with food dishes, wine and good restaurants is also read as an indicator of education and habit, hence prowess and seniority in the company.
Just as the English language has slang expressions particular to business, (often clichés such as “window of opportunity”, “run it up the flagpole,” etc.), French has culinary expressions and aphorisms which are very confusing, and often amusing, to the learner. Some of these are listed below and they give an idea of the important role played by food in doing business in France.
Le gratin / The topping =senior management
Un citron pressé / A squeezed lemon =burnt-out manager
Des choux gras / fat cabbages =big profits