Quebec's Language Police Don't Want You to Order a 'Grilled Cheese'
We spoke to the owner of Resto Mama Grilled Cheese in Quebec City about how the name of his restaurant drew the ire of the province's infamous "language police."
In Quebec City, everybody calls a grilled cheese a "grilled cheese," whether they speak French or English.
Despite being home to a 95 percent Francophone population, la capitale nationale retains the language of origin for certain staples of the North American diet, like the grilled cheese or the hot dog, no matter how strong the city's European flare.
But that hasn't stopped the province's infamous and sometimes "overzealous" Office de la langue française (OQLF), commonly referred to as the "language police," from taking issue with the proper nomenclature for two slices of bread with melted cheese in between.
Last Thursday, Stephane Rhéaume, co-owner of Resto Mama Grilled Cheese, received a notice in the mail that the sign outside his restaurant was in violation of Quebec's French language laws. His first offence: the use of the word "enjoy" on signage without a French equivalent in a more prominent font size. His second was a far graver crime: using the words "grilled cheese."
"I agree that the way we used the word 'Enjoy' is problematic but the word 'grilled cheese' is used by about 90 percent of Quebecers," Rheaume told MUNCHIES.
Still, the OQLF insisted that he use "sandwich de fromage fondu," which translates roughly to "melted cheese sandwich" to describe his offerings, a term that Rheaume says he's never heard used by a single client.
"It's never happened. The only difference between the French and the English, is that the French, we usually say 'un grill cheese' instead of 'un grilled cheese.' Usually we don't pronounce the 'D' but that's about the only nuance."
Despite only receiving a notice from the OQLF last Thursday, Rheaume succeeded in getting the OQLF to backtrack in a press release and clarify their position, insisting that Resto Mama Grilled Cheese would not have to change its name, despite its use a legally prohibited word.
This uncharacteristically quick response from a provincial bureaucracy is probably due to the fact that Rheaume spoke to local and national media instead of folding immediately.
"After all of the media attention we got last week, the Office is almost willing to admit to having made a mistake about the word 'grilled cheese' as being a violation of the Charter [of the French Language]," Rheaume says.
The grilled cheese incident is very similar to the "Pastagate" scandal that rocked Quebec three years ago.
In 2013, the target was Italian food. The OQLF went after Montreal restaurant Buonanotte, demanding that they remove the words "pasta", "calamari", and "antipasti" from their menu and replace them with their French equivalents, despite the fact that nobody actually calls pasta "pâtes alimentaires" in Quebec.
If I knew who it was I would buy them a grilled cheese because they've given me so much publicity.
Instead of conforming, Buonanotte owner Massimo Lecas made waves by going to the media. That move eventually led to the resignation of Louise Marchand, the head of the OQLF, and helped make language rights a campaign issue during provincial elections.
Other prominent restaurants targeted during the 2013 raids were Joe Beef, for using vintage signs that were in English only, and French bistro Holder, who were asked to cover up print on a hot water tap that said "on/off" and switch "steak" to "bifteck" on their menu, despite the fact that "steak" is the far more common term among Francophones.
"Language police" is not the most accurate term for the OQLF, since much of the policing is actually done by private citizens who can make complaints on the office's website. There is no way to know whether the complaint came from a provincial inspector or a disgruntled customer, but Rheaume says he feels no ill will toward whoever made the complaint.
"There's no way of knowing, it could be anyone. If I knew who it was I would buy them a grilled cheese because they've given me so much publicity. One way or another, we'll always be making grilled cheese."