A lot of "a little"

Every profession has its own jargon, and cooking is no exception. There's a interesting combination of technical terms, slang words and colorful insults that go into kitchen speak. A sentence like "Hey clown nipples, get your mise together and start cooking off those pork chops" might be confusing to an outsider, but it's completely logical to someone fluent in kitchen-ese.

I've always been fascinated by cook talk, and recently became aware of a popular saying: "a little." By itself this phrase is common vernacular, but in the cooking context, "a little" can refer to many things. What brought this term to my attention was the current season of Top Chef, where the contestants are constantly using "a little" to describe their dishes. "I made a made a little apple hash with seared scallops," contestant Radhika said to describe her quick fire dish in episode 1. " I made a little stuffed french toast, stuffed with a little soft cream cheese..and I made a little chili maple syrup," Ariane explained to Rocco DiSpirito in the most recent showing. There are many other instances, but you get the drift. Even when the plate or the ingredients aren't technically little, that's the word that prefaces them.

So what does "a little" mean to cooks? As far as I can tell, part of it is imparting a casualness to the food. "I made a little lobster bisque," means "hey, I didn't just spend hours slaving over this soup, and even if I did, I don't want you to know it." One of my chef roommates told me that in his restaurant, the term was often used when a cook wanted to experiment with a new dish, like "how about a little gastrique to go with that venison?" The cook is not making a small gastrique. "A little" in this context means "it's no problem, it might suck, and if so, we'll bag it."

"A little" isn't as vibrant as some of the other kitchen sayings, but it's interesting to watch a show like Top Chef and have nearly every contestant describe their dish with that term. Look out for it next episode, chances are you'll hear "a little" a lot.

Browse Culinary Arts Schools & Colleges