Le gratin


This is part of a series on French idiomatic expressions that relate to food. Browse the list of idioms featured so far.

This week’s idiom is, “Le gratin.”

As cooks may already know, gratin* is the generic French term for preparations (often involving vegetables and some sort of binding sauce) cooked in a baking dish in the oven until the surface browns and becomes crusty.

But it is also a colloquial expression that refers to a social elite, an exclusive crowd who distinguish themselves by their social background, their wealth, their elegance, and/or the select field they work in. It is generally used with a subtle mix of contempt and envy by people who are not a part of that circle.

A close equivalent would be the English idiom the upper crust (before it became a popular name for pizzerias and bakeries).

Though it was originally a matter of social class only, usage of this expression now extends beyond that to consider one’s connections, talent (perceived or real), and popularity: an up-and-coming artist, for instance, can belong to the gratin without being particularly wealthy (yet) or of noble origin. Because of this, the term is often qualified further to specify the traits of the group in question: le gratin du cinéma for the movie crowd, le gratin parisien for the Parisian high society, le gratin mondain for socialites, etc.

It is frequently used with tout (tout le gratin = all the gratin, the whole gratin), which serves to point out that these groups tend to adopt a herd behavior.

Example: “Je suis allée à son vernissage, tout le gratin de la presse était là.” “I went to her vernissage, the whole gratin of the press was there.”

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

(If no player appears, here’s a link to the audio file.)

Audio note: I was told I speak a little fast for some of you, so I’ve recorded the example sentence using my normal(ish) speed of voice, then more slowly to clarify the pronunciation. Will you let me know if that’s helpful?

This expression appeared in the late nineteenth century. It plays on the idea that the browned top of the gratin is the most flavorful (thanks to the Maillard reaction), likening the social elite to this coveted part of the dish, while the rest of the society lies underneath.

I’ll note that two other French expressions use the same concept: la crème (the cream, which we all know rises to the top) and le dessus du panier (the top of the basket), both of which are equivalent to the English idiom “the cream of the crop.”

* I was excited to learn that, originally, gratin was the word for the browned scraps of food that stick to the bottom and sides of the baking dish, which you have to scrape off, or gratter in French. This historical meaning is no longer in use, but it made perfect sense.

{Pictured above is my gratin dauphinois (potato gratin).}

  • Vidya

    As a student of French, these idioms are really helpful, I can use them in speaking exams. Personally, I think you speak normally for a French person, I’m not a native speaker and I speak French about as fast as you do.

  • Informative! Tomorrow, I’m planning to cook gratin with Mex tortilla instead of pancake :) Lovely w/e!

  • Intriguing! I love your edible idioms. It’s good to know the origins of the expressions that are so commonly and almost thoughtlessly tossed about.

  • msue

    I always enjoy reading about (and hearing!) these French idioms. Since my ear is not accustomed to the French language, hearing the phrase read at both speeds helped me follow better.


    p.s. Now I’ll think about that gratin all day!

  • Thanks so much for sharing these idioms. I love reading them and learning a bit more about the French language.

  • I love the edible idioms. If I were to read that sentence in French I would have gotten so confused by “le gratin”.

  • Kay

    Love this idiomatic part of your blog. I can get your usual speaking speed, but now with the second, slower one, I can tell the high school students to come listen, too!

  • Clotilde, thank you for the mini French lesson. I particularly appreciated the audio file you included. I’ve always regretted not paying more attention during my high school French classes. I think French is one of the most beautiful languages spoken.

  • i just love the sound of the word gratin!

  • This was a very interesting post on the idiom le gratin. I’m going to start using it in English. I hope it becomes fashionable.

  • Love, love, love this part of your blog almost, notice I said ‘almost’ as much as the recipes! I’ve always been interested in how food, language, art, etc., all intersect – thank you for being such a good teacher!

  • These idioms are so interesting to read about! I guess I like the upper crust because I really like au gratins!

  • le gratin is my favorite of all the french foods i can think of. i love learning the etymology and current idiomatic uses of the term, makes me love le gratin even more. french is such a rich and interesting language. thanks for this.

  • Mmmm, now I’m just hungry! :) Wanted to let you know that having the slower pronunciation in addition to the normal speed is ever so helpful. Thanks so much!

  • So nice!!! I didn’t know all this things and meanings about this common word!! Thanks for the mini french lesson :)

  • I LOVE this series of yours about idiomatic expressions. It’s so informative and fun!

  • Love your French mini lessons. We should all use the French pronounciation of words like gratin.
    And I sure love eating one!

  • Thank you for the lessons – it is helpful to have the voice playback to learn the correct pronunciation.

  • Thanks for the idioms. I am a High School nurse and frequently discuss your phrases with our French teacher. Great fun.

  • Sounds delicious. ;-) These phrases are quite helpful.


  • All this time, I never quite knew what to call myself. Now I know…. I’m a gratin.

  • interesting, love the comparison to the upper crust … surprised it didn’t also involve la creme de la creme as well!

  • Inspired by the idiom, I made summer squash gratin. Not that it is summer or that squash is in season (I guess it is somewhere!), but it is much lighter than a potato gratin and just as rich- think cream! And I couldn’t help myself and blogged about it.

  • Annee

    Thanks for the French lesson, am brushing up on my French for a visit later in the year.

  • I really enjoy reading about French idioms on your blog. I am attending a professional culinary school in Paris and find these posts so helpful during my french lessons and in the kitchen. I reckon they’ll be pretty useful during my stage too!
    PS: my favourite phrase has probably got to be Ce n’est pas tes oignons!

  • Sam

    Yum :)

  • The Paris Food Blague

    gosh how cute this “theme” is….there are indeed a lot of french food idioms

  • ToussianMuso

    “Gratin” in the old-fashioned sense is one of many words that have fallen out of standard usage in French but are quite common in Haitian Creole. I have found it fascinating to read Balzac and Flaubert and discover words that I recognized although I had not previously seen or heard them in French. (“Cahoutchouc”, an old word for a tire, comes to mind.) Now I can add the archaic use of “gratin” to the list. What fun.

  • It is very helpful to have the dual speeds, thanks so much! I love this feature!

  • It is a useful treat to have these ‘food’ idioms available…along with your newsletter of wonderful recipes and delightful commentaries! I have very basic french language skills, but live and work (chef/deck hand) on a canal boat in France for 5 months of the year…I need the help! Merci, Yerda

  • Kate Welch

    Thanks so much for the idiom lessons. I LOVE this stuff! (and well, love food, too – so it all goes hand-in-hand). Don’t get to read your blog every day, but when I do, just REALLY appreciate it! Merci!

  • Erin

    The slower pronunciation is VERY helpful, thanks! (And I love this additional “instruction” on your blog. It’s yet another reason to get to Paris — to practice speaking French.)

  • Elizabeth Austin Asch

    Yes please do speak slowly, it helps quite a lot. (Thanks for asking.) Adore your blog!

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