Dining Finesse

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The Menu

A well-balanced menu offers a contrast of colors, includes both hot and cold temperatures and does not duplicate taste and texture. Hot food is served on warm plates, cold food on cool plates.

Laying Dinnerware

The type of occasion generally determines how to lay dinnerware. At a multicourse meal, especially at a formal event, each course is served one at a time and dinnerware is laid in the center of the place setting. Side dishes are not served, cups and saucers do not appear on the table. At an informal meal, the menu is simpler and the courses are either laid on the table all at once or presented to the guests one at a time.

An elbow room of min. 40 cm is required between place settings.

The service plate, if used, is aligned flush with the edge of the table. Large plates are laid about 2,5 cm in from the edge of the table, small plates are laid in the centre of the cover, about 5 cm in from the edge of the table. Bread-and-butter plates are laid at the top left of the cover, above the dinner fork. The butter spreader is laid on the bread-and-butter plate horizontally, vertically or diagonally (a matter of choice).

Stemware is placed on the table in the order of use. At a simpler meal, one wine glass and a water goblet is used. Because water is taken throughout a meal, the goblet is placed in a position closest to the hand, 2,5 cm above the tip of the dinner knife. Wine glasses are placed in an order to accommodates the service of wine best. At formal multi course meals, to conserve space, stemware is arranged in a triangle (dessert glass forms the highest point, water goblet angled to the lower left of the dessert glass, glasses for red and white wine on the lower right side) or a diamond-shape (same as the triangle, but the white wine glass is angled to the lower left of the red wine glass).

The lower edges of the utensils are aligned with the bottom rim of the plate about 2,5 cm up from the edge of the table, also 2,5 cm away from the side of the plate to avoid hiding under rims.

Flatware is laid on the table in the order of use starting from the outside of the place setting moving inward toward the plate. Regardless of the number of courses served and when the utensils are placed on the table, the cover is always laid with a knife and fork. To alleviate clutter, no more than 3 knives, 3 forks and a soup spoon are laid on the table initially.

The knife and spoon are laid on the right side of the place setting, the fork on the left. The left-handed diner reverses the place setting. Fork tines may be placed downward continental style, or upward American style.

The dinner knife is laid to the right of the plate, blade facing the plate.

The soup spoon is placed on the right of the outside knife. Soup bowl and soup cup handles are aligned parallel with the edge of the table. When a soup bowl is presented on an underplate, the soup spoon is laid on the underplate, otherwise the spoon is laid in the bowl after use.

When salad is a first course, the salad fork is laid to the left of the dinner fork. If salad is served after the main course, the salad fork is placed to the right of the dinner fork. When salad is the main course, it is presented on a dinner plate.

When fish is served as an appetizer course, the fish knife is laid to the right of the dinner knife and the fish fork to the left of the dinner fork. When fish is served as a main course, the fish knife is placed to the right of the dinner plate, the fish fork to the left.

The seafood fork is the only fork placed on the right side of the place setting, laid on the right side of the soup spoon or tines placed in the bowl of the soup spoon with the handle at a 45-degree angle.

For dessert, in formal dining two dessert utensils (a dessert fork to the left and a dessert spoon or knife on the right) are presented on the dessert plate. At an informal meal when two utensils are provided for dessert, they are either presented on the plate, or laid on the table: the spoon or knife in a horizontal position above the dinner plate, handle facing right, the fork beneath the spoon or knife, handle facing left.

The fruit knife and fork are presented on the fruit plate in the same way as dessert utensils.

The teaspoon, after-dinner coffee spoon and demitasse spoon are placed on the saucer behind the cup handle, the handle facing the diner in a 4 o’ clock position. When a teaspoon is used as an eating utensil, it is laid on the right side of the place setting.

The iced-beverage spoon is laid on the table on the right side of the glass. Once used, it is held in the glass while drinking.

Cups and saucers are placed 2,5 cm beyond the outermost piece of flatware, cup handles facing a four o’ clock position for easy access.

Seating protocol, napkins

When more than 6 guests are seated, use place cards. If place cards are not provided, the hostess tells the guests where to sit or asks them to find their own places.

The seats of honor are accorded to the right of the host and hostess. At a family gathering, the oldest person is given the seat of honor. A guest entertained in the home for the first time, a houseguest or a foreign guest is accorded the seat of honor. Married couples rank higher than unmarried guests, but married couples are not seated next to each other.

Seat a left-handed person at the end of the table when possible to avoid bumping elbows.

At a formal meal, the hostess is the last to enter the dining room and the ladies sit down without waiting for her. Gentlemen draw out the chair for the lady seated on their right, push her chair into place and seat themselves. When all the women are seated, the men sit down.

Rather than delay dinner for everyone, dinner is held no longer than 15-20 minutes to accommodate the arrival of a late guest.

Before unfolding your napkin at a seated meal, wait for the hostess to remove hers from the table. If a napkin ring is used, after it is removed it is placed at the top left of the place setting. A large napkin is unfolded halfway, a smaller napkin is unfolded entirely to fully cover the lap.

When leaving the table temporarily, place napkin on t he seat of the chair. At the end of the meal, the napkin is loosely folded and placed to the left or right to the dessert plate, or if the cover is empty, laid in the middle of the place setting.

Serving Techniques

Formal Dinner Service

A formal dinner may last 4 hours or more.

The space before the guest must always hold a plate, an empty cover is left before the guest only for the brief time when the table is cleared for dessert. Service plates are laid on the table before the guests enter the dining room.

Service begins with the lady of honor seated to the right of the host, and ends with the host.

Plates are served and cleared from the left. Food service is presented and cleared to the left and proceeds counterclockwise to the right. The server holds a fresh plate in the palm to keep fingers off from the rim (the rim of a plate may be touched when clearing a plate). Prearranged courses are served on a platter, a separate utensil is provided for each food on the platter. After service, the platter is lifted above the guest’s shoulder. Second helpings are not offered.

Beverages are served and cleared from the right side, service progresses to the left, clockwise. Water is poured after the first course is served, filling the goblet no more than ¾ full. The goblet and wine glasses remain on the table throughout the meal. Wine bottles are opened in the kitchen. The host’s glass is filled first, who tastes the wine.

Service is quiet and traffic is kept at a minimum not to disrupt conversation.

Plates are cleared after the last guest is finished, or at a large dinner party, when the majority of guests are finished.

To allow guests to stretch, demitasse, liqueurs and brandy are served in a different room.

Informal Dinner Service

Generally, host pours cocktails, passes hors d’oeuvres, pours dinner wine, carves meat, assists at a buffet, offers after-dinner drinks, helps guests with their coats. Hostess cooks, sets the table, serves the meal, clears the table and pours after-dinner coffee. Ideally, one or the other is with the guests at all times.

Plates are served on the left and cleared from the right when the last guest is finished (or when the majority is finished, at a large party). Guests pass rolls, sauce and condiments at the table. Second helpings are offered and encouraged.

Water is not served unless the menu is quite salty or spicy, but a glass of water is provided for guests who don’t drink wine.

Before dessert is served, the table is cleared. Coffee is served at or away from the table. Digestives are not necessary, but may be offered as a gesture of hospitality.

Buffet Service

Food is prepared in advance and served preportioned: one-dish meals that ideally require one utensil to eat (a fork).

Guests serve themselves and return for second helpings.

Luncheon

A luncheon is served at 12.30 or 13.00. It is a lighter meal than dinner and a shorter time is allotted for it. Beverages are light, hors d’oeuvres and canapes are not served.

For a formal luncheon, the table is laid as for formal dinner, only less tableware is needed. Second portions are not offered. An informal luncheon is served by the hostess, second portions are offered.

Afternoon Tea

Afternoon tea is served after luncheon, between 3 and 4 o’clock.

Formal tea is an elegant affair for a large group. Guests stand and help themselves to delicate finger sandwiches, pastries, nuts, mints and chocolate. The hostess pours tea (lifts teacup with left hand, pours tea with right hand) for the guests, a tea-table is laid with a tablecloth and two silver services, one for tea, one for coffee.

Informal tea is held earlier. Chairs are provided, and the hostess makes and serves tea.

High Tea

High tea is served later in the afternoon than afternoon tea, around 5 o’clock. The menu is more substantial, like hors d’oeuvres and canapes. Plates and utensils are provided.

Using Flatware

At a dinner party of eight or less, wait for the hostess to begin eating. At a large party you may start after 3-4 guests are served. At a banquet, wait until those on either sides of you are served. At a buffet, you may start when you are ready.

At a formal meal, fingers do not touch food except to eat dry rolls or crackers, and when holding fresh fruit.

Food served on a plate is eaten with a fork, food served in a bowl is taken with a spoon. Food is cut and pushed with knife blades, morsels are speared and lifted with fork tines, spoons are used to stir, sip and sup.

At an informal meal, one or two utensils are presented, whichever is more comfortable. In formal dining, two utensils are presented for the appetizer, main, salad, dessert and fruit courses. When two eating utensils are provided together, the fork is used to steady the portion, the spoon to cut and convey the bite to the mouth.

The dinner fork is held in the left hand like a pencil, tines downward. At an informal dinner, the tines may face upward.

The dinner knife is held in the right hand, low to the plate. The index finger extends along the top of the blade.

The soup spoon is not filled full to avoid spills.

A fish knife is not used to cut a bite, but to separate the soft flesh of the fish from the body. The handle is held in the right hand toward the end of the shank. The fish fork is held in the left hand and is used the traditional way.

The dessert fork is held in the left hand tines downward, to steady the portion. The dessert spoon is held in the right hand to cut and transfer a bite to the mouth.

At an informal meal, fresh fruit is cut and sectioned with a dinner knife and a salad or dessert fork. At a formal dinner, a fruit fork and a fruit knife is presented with a fruit plate and a finger bowl, to rinse fingers.. The fruit is held in the left hand, the fruit knife is held in the right hand to peel and section. The fruit is then steadied on the plate with the fork in the left hand. To cut a bite, the fruit knife is held in the right hand. The bite is taken from the pate with the fork.

Etiquette Basics

At an informal meal, guests assist with service by passing the dishes nearest to them. Serveware is passed to the right. Take the portion nearest you. To refuse service, just say ‘No, thank you’. Do not wave hands, cover up a glass, or turn a glass upside down to refuse a drink. Simply say ‘No, thank you’.

Do not blow on hot foods or beverages.

Blot your lips with a napkin before taking a sip of beverage.

Raising the first glass of wine to one’s health is a sentiment given to honor someone. A toast should be short and simple, not to delay the meal. Customarily the host makes the first toast to the honored guest. At a formal dinner, all but the honored guest stand and raise their glasses in the direction of the honoree, the honoree responds with a nod and a simple ‘Thank you’ and refrains from sipping wine. At an informal dinner, guests remain seated, the person who gives the toast stands. A speach is reserved to the end of the meal.

When holding a utensil, rest your other hand in your lap. Do not gesticulate with an eating utensil in hand.

Cut one bite at a time. Once a bite is placed on an eating utensil, consume the bite entirely or not at all. Lean over the plate when taking a bite.

Once a utensil is used, it is not put on the table again, it is laid on the plate or bowl it is provided to accompany.

During a meal, elbows remain close to the body and off the table. Between courses, elbows are rested on the table so you may lean forward, or the wrist and forearm are placed on the edge of the table. Chat only briefly with those seated several places away so the person in the middle does not have to lean backward.

Keep hands away from your face and hair. Cover your nose and mouth with a napkin when coughing or sneezing, use a handkerchief and turn your head to the side when blowing your nose.

When food is spilled at a formal affair, a butler takes action. At an informal meal, quietly lift the food with a utensil and place it on the side of your plate.

To signal you are finished with your meal, place flatware on the side of your plate diagonally, with the handles in the 4 o’ clock position on the right rim of the plate, tips resting in the well of the plate in the 10 o’ clock position, blades facing inward.

Dinner is concluded when the hostess lays her napkin on the table, rises from her seat and clears the plates with the help of a guest or two. At a formal affair, guests do not depart until the honoree has left.

How to eat specific foods

Bread is broken or cut before it is eaten. Bread with soft texture (such as rolls) is broken in half with fingers, a bite-size piece is pulled from the broken half and buttered a bite at a time. Bread with firm texture (such as toast) is cut in half or quartered, buttered entirely and are held by the sides. A bread stick is gently broken in half. Croutons are spooned over food, crackers are eaten with fingers.

Cakes with dry, crumbly texture (such as cupcakes) are broken into small pieces and eaten a bite at a time with fingers. Cake with a moist texture, like a custard pie is eaten with a fork. Ice-cream cake is served with a spoon and a fork. Cookies are best eaten with fingers, small cookies whole in one bite, large cookies broken and a piece at a time.

Caviar is served cold on a bed of ice, accompanied by small toast rounds. Caviar is scooped with a small spoon onto a toast and eaten with fingers.

Cheese is a digestive, presented after the service of salad or fruit. It’s most flavorful at room temperature: for greatest flavor, remove from the refrigerator 1 hour before service. Soft cheese such as ricotta stays firm longer when placed on a chilled marble slab. Firm cheese, such as cheddar remains hard on a wooden board. To balance the flavors, a choice of three is offered in three different consistencies. A separate knife is provided for each type of cheese. The rind of soft cheese is edible, the rind of firm cheese is removed with a knife and fork. At a formal dinner, a cheese plate is accompanied with toasted crackers. Soft cheese is spread on a cracker with a utensil and eaten with fingers, firm cheese is eaten with a fork or placed on a cracker and eaten with fingers.

Whole condiments like olives are taken with fingers. Sliced condiments such as pickles are eaten with a fork. Liquid condiments with a thin consistency (e.g. soy sauce) are poured over food. Liquid condiments with a thick consistency like salsa are spooned over food.

Soft-boiled eggs are served in an eggcup, pointed end facing downward. The upper part of the shell is cracked horizontally all the way round with a knife. The shell is lifted with the tip of the knife and put on the side of the plate. A bite of egg is scooped from the shell with a spoon. A pinch of salt and pepper may be sprinkled over each bite.

Escargot. In formal dining snails are served on a snail dish without shells, while in informal dining, usually in shells. The shell is held in a napkin-covered hand, or gripped with a snail tong if provided. The snail fork is used to extract the meat. You may also spear a small piece of bread and dip it into the garlic butter.

Fish. When the head is not detached in the kitchen, remove it behind the gills. To fillet the fish, hold body with a fork and slit its back from the head to the tail with a knife, than open the fish on the plate. To remove the skeleton from the body, place the tip of the knife under the backbone, lift with the fork and place it on the side of the plate. If you ingest a fish bone, remove it with your fingers and place them on the side of the plate.

Frog legs are held with the fingers. Large legs are disjoined with a knife and fork.

Fruit. At formal affairs, large and medium-size fruit such as a pear are quartered with a fruit knife and eaten with the fruit fork, one bite at a time. Small fruit such as plums are eaten with fingers, close to the stone. Cherries are eaten with a spoon, the pits are deposited on the spoon and placed on the plate. At an informal meal, cherries are eaten with fingers, pits are deposited into a cupped hand and placed on the plate. Berries with the stems removed are eaten with a spoon, berries with the stems left on are eaten with fingers (stems are placed on the side of the plate). Sliced melon is eaten with a fork, melon balls are eaten with a spoon. When eating grapes, place a small cluster on your plate, and eat grapes one at a time with fingers. Cooked fruit served in a bowl is eaten with a spoon. Canned fruit is eaten with a fork.

Pasta served on a plate is eaten with a fork, wound around the tines. Pasta served in a bowl such as ravioli is eaten with a spoon.

Pâté as an appetizer is spread on a small toast with a knife and eaten with fingers. At a buffet, a slice is cut from a cold terrine, placed on a plate and eaten with a fork.

Pizza as an appetizer or at cocktails is eaten with fingers. When a large wedge is served at the table on a plate, it is eaten with a fork.

Small, thin tea sandwiches are eaten with fingers. A bigger sandwich, like a club sandwich is cut in quarters with a knife and eaten with fingers. Open-face sandwiches are eaten with a fork and knife.

Shellfish and lobster are served cooked and cracked in restaurants, ready to eat with a small seafood fork. Twist off legs with fingers, crack them open with a nutcracker and remove flesh with the utensil provided. Separate body into bite-size pieces. Twist off the tail with fingers and eat the meat with the fork. Discard shell in the dish provided and rinse fingers in the finger bowl. Shrimps are eaten with the fingers or with a seafood fork.

Oysters are eaten cooked or raw. When cooked, they are served without the shell in sauce and are eaten with a fork or a spoon. Raw oysters are served on the half shell on a bed of ice, seasoned with lemon and pepper, detached from the shell before service. Hold the shell in one hand and remove oyster with the oyster fork or bring to the mouth and suck flesh from the shell.

Know your beverage

Wine

Wine is served with meals as a digestive: the acidity promotes saliva, thus cleansing the palate and prepare overloaded taste buds for the next bite.

The glass is filled half full. Wine is swirled in the glass in small movements to release the aroma and bouquet. The glass is brought to the nose and the bouquet is inhaled in short sniffs. Taste is enhanced when wine is rolled around in the mouth.

The color of wine is given by the pigment in the grape skins, grape juice is almost colorless. White wine varies from pale yellow to yellow with a hint of green to deep gold. Rosé is made from red or black grapes, the skins and solids remain on the grapes for a few hours, the wine’s color ranges from soft pink to orange pink. Red wine is made from red, purple or black grapes, skin and solids remain on the grapes for 3-8 days (the longer, the deeper the color and more tannin). Color varies from purplish to deep scarlet, ruby and mahogany.

The smell of wine is called aroma and bouquet, it can be fruity like berries, earthy with a faint taste of minerals, grassy like herbs or nutty, like almonds.

The remaining sugar in wine after fermentation determines if the wine is dry or sweet. Dry wines have lower residual sugar and alcohol levels than sweet wines.

Wine categories:

  • Fortified wine: served as an aperitif to start the flow of gastric juices and to stimulate the appetite (vermouth, anise, bitters), sweet desset wine served with desset, and after-dinner wines (liqueurs, cordials, brandy and cognac) to stimulate and aid digestion aftera multicourse meal.
  • Table wine: nonfortified wine served with meals with 7-14 percent alcohol
  • Sparkling wine and champagne

When table wine undergoes a second fermentation, it develops carbon dioxide gas that produces bubbles. The difference between sparkling wine and champagne is the method of production. The bubbles in sparkling wine are larger and the fizz is shorter in duration, made in batches through a simpler and less costly method. The second fermentation of champagne occurs in the bottle in which it is sold, as a result of added sugar and yeast – a costly, long and labor-intensive method. The bubbles are finer and effervescence lasts longer.

Dry champagne is served as an aperitif and with a meal as a digestive. Sweet champagne is served with dessert. The dryness is identified on the label: extra-brut, brut, extra-sec, sec, demi-sec and doux.

Dry sparkling wine is served as an aperitif before dinner and as table wine to accompany a meal. Sweet sparkling wine is reserved for dessert.

Tea

Tea is classified in two major groups: Assam and Chinese. Assam infuses to a darker color than Chinese tea, and has a malty, deep and more pronounced taste. Chinese tea is delicately flavored and lighter in the cup.

Tea leaves contain more caffeine than coffee beans, but a cup of brewed tea contains less caffeine than coffee because fewer tea leaves are used in the infusion. The shorter the infusion, the less caffeine per cup. In the first minute, ¾ of the caffeine is extracted. Generally, the best infusion time is 3-5 min.

Types of tea:

  • Black tea: fully fermented tea leaves make a brownish-red infusion highest in caffeine. For breakfast, drink English breakfast tea, for luncheon choose Darjeeling. A great afternoon tea is Earl Grey, while at dinner, ask for a cup of Prince of Wales.
  • Oolong: semifermented tea, brownish-red in the cup, contains half the caffeine of black tea. A blend of black and green teas.
  • Green tea: nonfermeted, yellowish-green, contains about ¼ the caffeine of black tea. Highest in antioxidants.
  • Blended teas may contain flowers, fruit, seeds and nuts for an aromatic and healthful infusion.
  • Specialty tea is made from one kind of tea leaf produced in a particular region.

To remove excess liquid from a tea bag, press it against the rim of the cupwith the spoon. Place used tea bag on the saucer.

Coffee

Coffee is produced from two species of plant, arabica and robusta. Good coffe is determined by a balanced aroma, acidity, flavor and body.

Types of roasts by color are light roast, medium-brown roast, medium-dark roast, dark-brown roast and brownish-black roast. Light roasts are more acidic than dark roasts. Light to medium roasts contain mora caffeine than dark roasts, and are served as a stimulant during the day (at breakfast or lunch). Dark roasts, which usually have European names like Viennese roast, contain less caffeine and are taken as a digestive after a heavy meal.

Coffee grinds are extrafine, fine, medium and coarse – the filter of your device determines which to choose. In general, the finer the grind, the faster it brews. The ratio of ground coffee to water in order of increasing amounts of coffee are instant, moderate-strength, strong, after-dinner and Turkish coffee.

At a formal dinner demitasse is taken black, cream is not offered. Sugar is added on request. At an informal meal, the hostess asks how the guest takes his/her coffee.

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