There is a phrase used among chefs which, like so much of culinary culture, has its origins in France during the Escoffier era: le system 'd'. The phrase loses some of its meaning in English, as the "D" refers to a word, débrouillard, with no direct translation. It can be either an adjective or a noun, roughly meaning adept at handling unexpected situations in stride, often by improvising a solution. The closest English equivalent would involve invoking MacGyver. That man is débrouillard.

Turning to System D means jury-rigging a solution. To a chef this means reacting quickly when bad things happen at the worst (busiest) time without breaking the flow of the kitchen. Out of spinach? Use arugula. Deep fryer crapped out? Throw a pot on a burner and get to work. Twice as many guests at the banquet as anticipated? Fluff out the portions with filler, just don't make it too obvious.
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Chefs take pride in this sort of thing, seamlessly circumventing roadblocks with customers none the wiser.

Maybe it's a male thing, but I believe most of us take pride in putting System D into action – opening a locked car door with a coat hanger, plugging a leak with gum, fixing something with duct tape, and so on. I had a System D moment with my dissertation this evening – a very complex problem with a laughably low-brow solution. I dare not put it in writing, lest it come back to haunt me in the future, but I can say with great pride that I am quite débrouillard when it comes to spatial analysis of political behavior. No one else cares, of course, but the whole point of System D is the pride in knowing that you are more clever than the obstacles in your path.

And to impress MacGyver. Assuming he reads this, regale him (and me) with your finest System D stories in the comments.

10 thoughts on “LE SYSTEM D”

  • Son had a fascination with guns at age 3. Didn't want this to become a fascination with assaulting people (and it turns out I don't hunt.)

    So I set up a "target practice" range in our backyard, consisting of water bottles, etc. and got him a squirt gun. The rule? If any *person* gets wet, these go away.

    (Mind you, I had no issues with "hose fights" when we weren't in drought.)

  • Right after college on my way to a Dave Matthews Band concert at Alpine Valley (this was probably 2000) my '89 Volkswagon Golf had a radiator hose bust while waiting in the traffic jam to get in…(how's that for a string of cliches?)

    Anyway, I didn't have any tape or a different hose, so I used part of a sock and a plastic bag to cover the hole. I made it back to Madison without problem.

  • Armored a Humvee with sandbags, 550 cord, and plywood. And it worked. Because you go to war with Army you have. Which apparently left the Marines out. So we had to half-ass it. Imprives. Adapt. Overcome. Le system "d".

  • bk, ive been in a similar situation, but i had a van full of junk with which to fashion something – anything – to plug the hole. many combinations later, we gave up and called for help. you ARE macgyver. and my new hero.

  • In line with David's comment, I think parenthood develops each person's inherent débrouillard abilities. Enlisting the closest stuffed animal to become "Beagle the safety dog" in order to enforce seatbelt policies in the car, creating a castle out of cardboard, making vegetables look like cartoon characters (in addition to sneaking them into everything), creating a dress out of a t-shirt and headband in the goodwill bag in the car after your pitstop by the road accidently ruins the first outfit of the day, turning sugar packets into bricks…etc, etc. The blessings of parenthood makes unexpected situtations which you must handle with grace the rule, rather than the exception and the better able you are to take them creatively in stride, the happier everyone is.

  • the movie "Tortilla Soup" with Hector Elizondo is an almost exact example of your 'd' and food catering situation…a good film also….dont see if hungry…improvise, compromise, midasize!!

  • Ha ha about BK's comment…I never will read his comments again the same way! That dirty hippie. But I should have seen it coming: the highway outside Alpine Valley is always littered with hippies in broken-down nazi cars.

    I was supposed to do PCR to validate the genotype of my germline replacement chimeric zebrafish in order to verify that nulls were viable as well as +/+'s or +/-'s…but the PCRs were a bitch. My advisor says, "It is essential that you work out the conditions for this PCR reaction." Anyway, two weeks later and no working PCR protocol, and I decide that, to solve this PCR problem, all I need is not to do the PCR. And you know what? I isolated null germline chimeric zebrafish a month later using no PCR. That shut my advisor up real quick.

    System D to shut up advisors? Priceless.

  • I once, having never fiddled with the things before, repaired a VHS cassette in which the tape itself had broken, using only scotch tape and (memory fails me) possibly a screwdriver. I had a low level of smug going on based on that for years. Now I know it's not just me. Thanks!

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