Who did Anthony Bourdain rely on in his restaurant kitchen, the WW1 French infantryman want with him in the trenches, and the father of the modern Olympic Games view as a truly complete athlete? A débrouillard, whose image has remained dynamic, yet anchored as a model of versatility.
The French term débrouillard, utilized as both a noun and an adjective, translates into English most directly as “resourceful,” but the depth of meaning has multiple facets as part of the evolution from its origin in the mid-19th century to today. Scholars trace the original concept of la débrouille (resourcefulness) to initially being used by the French military in North Africa around the 1850s and from it derived débrouillard, which became broadly established across French society throughout the Belle Époque.
Based upon literary association, débrouillard has been strongly linked with frenetic restaurant kitchens through accounts ranging from Orwell to Bourdain. It should be no surprise that French army veteran and developer of the kitchen brigade concept, Chef Auguste Escoffier, would also have the term in his vocabulary to describe an effective worker. Orwell wrote in Down and Out in Paris and London that, “A débrouillard is a man who, even when he is told to do the impossible, will se débrouiller—get it done somehow.” In a July 2002 interview with Harvard Business Review, Bourdain described a débrouillard in his kitchen as “the person who gets you out of a jam” and wrote in his Les Halles Cookbook that, “every professional kitchen needs one.”
High esteem of a débrouillard stems from the effectiveness of the French infantryman (nicknamed “poilu” or hairy one) who utilized the resourceful improvisation of Système D (D stands for débrouille), resiliently in the trenches of WW1. Surviving in the new era of industrial warfare amongst the harsh conditions in the trenches demanded tremendous resourcefulness and practical ingenuity was an essential skill. According to the Collins Dictionary, published use of the term débrouillard peaked in 1918 as the poilu prevailed victoriously in The Great War.
Resilience has always been a consistent feature of débrouillards and at the dawn of the 20th century, pursuing athletic completeness was considered an important endeavor by many. Father of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, regarded all around athleticism as more important than specialization and sought to implement the Modern Pentathlon as an Olympic event. For athletic youth, Baron de Coubertin also created the Diplôme des Débrouillards award to encourage young men to be versatile and multi-disciplinary. Furthermore, early iterations of the triathlon in France were titled La Course des Débrouillards.
In modern culture, the term débrouillard is popularly used in a wildly divergent manner, split between more innocent adolescents who learn outdoor skills, scientific inquiry, and clever DIY fixes or young adults who survive in urban environments primarily by their wits. Youth outdoor camps in Quebec and a French science magazine titled after the term are illustrative of the importance of raising children with resourcefulness. With stronger undertones however, proliferation of French rap songs mentioning “débrouillard” and claims to be one by young men doing what they must do to hustle and survive on urban streets, also remains close to the original, unconstrained lineage of the term.
Regardless of how the nominal débrouillard is utilized, Baron de Coubertin’s observation remains prescient from a century ago: “If it is close to one’s heart that the son is prepared for the conditions of modern life, it is necessary to educate him well and let him be turned into a man who always knows how to help himself (make him “débrouillard”). There is no other recipe…. In truth, the so educated and capable man will also today and tomorrow still prevail.”