The French art of table setting
For occasions big or small, inviting friends over for a meal is always special, but it can also be a considerable challenge. What food should you serve to satisfy every taste? What's the most appetising way to dress your plates? And how should you set your table to subtly express attention to your guests? You don't necessarily need to bring out your best silverware or show off your speciality dish: a successful meal also comes down to the small details and the quality of your service.
At the Ferrandi school of the culinary arts in Paris, Jean-Michel Robier is a coach in dining and the art of cooking and entertaining. "Hosting a dinner at home is very much like running a restaurant: the host prepares dishes that show they care about the guests having a pleasant time. There might be many or just a few dishes, but the main thing is that everything is orderly and clean, no matter which style you choose," he says.
After working in top French restaurants and launching one of his own, this passionate expert reminds us that France is a reference all over the world for the art of setting a table and serving food. "Since the royal court of Louis XIV up to today, the French have set the rules for etiquette, which we can adjust a bit today."
So let's learn how to set a table and entertain the French way.
Setting The Table
Step 1: Environment
Even before choosing your tableware, make sure the environment is immaculate: tidy up, dust, declutter and vacuum as needed. Keep in mind that to enjoy a meal, a feeling of space is crucial.
If you have the opportunity to eat outdoors, make sure the table isn't located in full sunshine, and shade it if necessary. Also make sure you're sheltered from the wind and the ground isn't cluttered with leaves or other items.
Finally, feel free to add garlands, candles and other decorative accessories to the walls, furniture or even the floor, as long as you don't clutter the space too much. Especially ensure that the traffic area around the table is completely open.
Step 2: Double tablecloth
Before laying your cloth, cover the table with a thick cotton undercloth. "This will provide some comfort to your guests when they rest their arms on the table," says Robier. "It will also dampen noise, such as when you set down your silverware."
Once your undercloth is in place, choose your tablecloth depending on the season, your taste and any theme your meal may have. Consider the shape and size of your table. If it's round, your tablecloth should be square.
Make sure the corners of the tablecloth cover part of the table's legs. If your table has a central post, this will be much easier. The tablecloth should hang down 20 to 40 centimetres from the table.
Don't fret if you see creases in your tablecloth. "There will always be some," Robier says. "You have two solutions: iron the tablecloth directly on the table, as in large restaurants, or keep the creases but align them and use them as a visual guide to set your table.
"Another tip is to really think about the placement of all the elements decorating your table, so you won't have to move them around, which will lead to more wrinkles."
Step 3: Plates
"To find out how many people your table can accommodate, count out about 80 centimetres per guest, so everyone will be comfortable. Never allow less than 60 centimetres," Robier says.
Next, align the edge of the plate, especially if it's square or rectangular, with the edge of the table, leaving two to five centimetres of space. Plates must never hang over the table's edge.
Step 4: Silverware
Silverware should be placed 1.3 centimetres from the edge of the table. The pieces can align at the top or the bottom, depending on the effect you want. Make sure you place forks on the left, knives on the right and the cheese knife and dessert spoon at the top of the plate, between it and the glass.
Tines can either face up (English style) or down (French style). This distinction originally had to do with the placement of the silversmith's hallmark. "In any case, make sure you adapt the silverware to what's being served – a serrated steak knife for red meat, a fish knife and any accessories needed to eat shellfish, and so on," Robier says.
As for the selection and distribution of the various knives, forks and spoons, Robier explains that there are several possibilities:
Banquet setting: Here, you'll be placing all silverware to be used throughout the meal in the order of their use, from the outside to the inside.
A la carte setting: In this case, set basic silverware (for example, knife and fork for the main dish) when the guests arrive. Then bring in the silverware for the starter when it's served and add silverware for fish or soup if needed, keeping your basics in place.
Surprise setting: Some restaurants choose not to set any silverware when guests arrive and bring them in as needed. This is a solution you can use to surprise your guests or if your table is very full. There are also restaurants where food is eaten with the hands, so let your imagination guide you.
Once your silverware is in position, place the bread plate at the top of the fork, always on the left.
TIP: For beautifully clean plates and silverware, wipe with a cloth dampened with white vinegar.
Step 5: Glasses
Glasses should always be placed at the top of the knife. They can be aligned in a row or set in a triangle formation.
To facilitate handling and to prevent spills, the largest and tallest glass should always be placed on the inside. For example, from the inside to the outside: red wine glass, white wine glass, water glass. "You should always consider and favour your guests' comfort," Robier says. Glasses can be removed as they are used.
"Just as the shapes of bottles vary, every wine-growing region has developed glass shapes depending on the characteristics of its wine. For a few years now, oenologists have also developed their own shapes depending on the variety of wine: sparkling, light white and so on," Robier says. So you'll need a large glass to appreciate the aroma of a red wine, while a white wine will need less volume.
"The art of the table has changed quite a bit over the last 50 years," he says. "In the 19th century, for instance, champagne glasses were small and wide and had a whisk to remove the bubbles. Then they were replaced with the flute, which helps to retain the gas. Now, the new trend is to drink champagne from a white wine glass."
TIP: For immaculate glasses, clean them with steam: pour hot water into a small pan, hold the glass upside-down over it until the inside fogs up, then wipe with a cloth.
Step 6: Napkins
Fold your napkins depending on your skill level and your patience. "In large restaurants, napkins tend to be folded in a simple way because folding requires you to touch the guests' napkins," Robier says. You can still create volume with only two or three folds.
You can use the same folding technique for every place setting, but you can also alternate, especially if you have an even number, to provide some interest for your table. Place the napkin on the plate or inside the largest glass.
Step 7: Condiments
Distribute your condiments around the table so everyone can reach them. For example, make sure you have one gravy boat for every two to three people. Also plan on a small plate for scrap waste from certain dishes, such as seafood platters, which you can remove gradually.
Also, don't forget finger bowls if your guests are likely to be eating with their hands. Just fill a silver, glass or porcelain bowl with warm water and add a lemon slice.
You can set bread, butter, salt and other condiments in small ramekins or decorative plates for a pretty table.
TIP: Never keep food packaging on the table unless you've bought something high-end, such as a really fine cheese. "We always pay attention to the origin of the products we eat, and your guests will appreciate what you're serving them, which shows your desire to please them," Robier says.
Step 8: Decorative details
Finish by adding small decorative accessories. So as not to clutter your table with a large centrepiece, put a few fresh flowers in small, personalised containers. This is always a great look, costs much less than a big centrepiece and effectively divides the space for the meal.
And here's the result! Your table is set according to French etiquette.
Now you just need to become familiar with the art of serving, so no false move will spoil your efforts.
Serving The Food
Ways of serving food have changed over the centuries in France, which has been a pioneering country in setting the codes to be followed.
"French-style serving appeared under kings Louis XIV, XV and then XVI," Robier says. "Serving was in the form of large buffets, as piling up the food showed off abundance and wealth. France was seen as being at the forefront of the art of living and eating. The first rules for waiting tables were then put into place by the royal court, defining an art of decorum. They were the first to be interested in the art of fine eating."
They enjoyed various eating fashions. For example, at the end of the 18th century, with the French Revolution, Russian-style service was introduced by a Russian prince living in Paris. "Dishes were wheeled in on a trolley to be served onto the guests' plates. This solution solved a problem with buffets, which were too showy after the French Revolution, and which made it impossible to eat food while it was hot," Robier says.
At the same time, the first restaurants appeared. "Thanks to his  book The Physiology of Taste, gourmet Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was then considered a leading name praising gastronomy and the pleasures of eating at the table," Robier says. "These rules were naturally adopted and adapted with the creation of different types of restaurants, from grand palaces to small, friendly bouchons, especially with the Industrial Revolution."
In the 19th century, English-style service appeared. "Dishes were then brought in to be served to guests using a spoon and fork in one hand, a tool we call tongs today," he says. At the same time, a new version of French-style service was developed, where dishes were brought to the table and guests served themselves.
For the past 50 years, however, plate service has been used widely. "This is the easiest way for chefs, who can then dress attractive plates and use their hands in the kitchen, which would be impossible in the dining room," Robier says.
So it's up to you to choose the format you think will be easiest and best suited to your meal.
A few serving rules to follow
Try to first serve the elderly or special guests at an occasion such as a birthday meal.
At the moment of serving, move to the right of the guest if you're right-handed, and to the left if you're left-handed. This choice should be made depending on you, not your guest, to avoid messes. However, if you choose French-style serving, you can present a dish to your guests, who can serve themselves directly, assuming they're right-handed and passing the dish to their left-hand side to facilitate handling.
Move around the table in a clockwise fashion.
Pay attention to the temperature of wine: white wine should be served chilled, between 7°C and 10°C. Bring it out at the last minute and keep it in an ice bucket.
To keep the flavours of a hot dish, use warm plates. Put them in the oven for a few minutes before dressing and bring them out at the last minute.
Offer different types of bread: wholegrain with walnuts, raisins or rye.
At the end of the meal, remember to bring out some sweet treats and offer different kinds of coffee and tea.
To finish, Robier gives us his real secret for being the perfect host: "Favour simple, homemade dishes and keep in mind that the art of entertaining is the art of giving all of yourself for the pleasure of your guests!"