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Since you're learning to cook, it won't be long before you will be serving other people some of your culinary delights. So it's necessary to be able to set the table correctly so you can be as good a host as you are a cook.
But there's another very good reason for you to know how a place setting is laid out, and that's because somewhere along the line, as your career progresses, you are going to eat out at someplace fancier than Joe's Diner.
Especially if you are out to dinner with a date or your boss (or someone you are interviewing), you don't want to pick up their napkin by mistake, or, worse yet, put your dinner roll on their bread plate.
So it's time to take a little break from the kitchen and visit the dining room.
In the photo, I show a typical place setting. There are fancier extensions to this setting, which I will describe later, but for now let's look at this one. This setting is useful for any nice sit-down dinner that includes bread and wine in addition to whatever food is being served.
If you are being seated at a table for two or four, and you have one side of the table for yourself, you'll see what is shown in the photo. But if you're at a large function, or at a round table seating several people, it's important to know where your stuff ends and your neighbor's begins.
Your napkin and bread plate are on the left side of your dinner plate. So leave the napkin and bread plate on the right side alone -- they belong to someone else. When someone passes the bread basket, remember which plate is yours; it's on the left. That's handy, because you might hold the bread in your left hand while you butter it with your right hand.
If the service includes a butter knife, it will be placed on the bread plate as shown in the upper left of the photo. If there is not a butter knife there, then use the dinner knife at the right of the dinner plate to butter your bread. When the butter is passed, it should already have a butter knife with it; if so, use that knife to cut some butter to place on your bread plate. You shouldn't have to use your dinner knife for the community butter unless they fail to provide a separate knife.
Next to your napkin are usually two forks. The small one is for a salad, which may be served as a separate course. The larger one is for dinner. In some cases, at a high class restaurant, there may be a small fork on each side of the dinner knife. If so, the outside one is for eating the fish course, and the inside one is for salad. If fish is served as a separate course, you are probably at a continental restaurant that will also serve the salad at the end of the meal instead of at the beginning. That's why the salad fork may be on the inside in this case. You use the forks from left to right during the meal.
Also on the outside, because it may be used during a early course of the meal is the soup spoon, on the far right. There may already be a soup bowl sitting on the dinner or serving plate if the soup is going to be served from a cauldron at the table. Otherwise, the soup bowl may be brought to the table and placed on the plate by the waiter. Or by you, if you're serving Thanksgiving dinner at the table.
The next spoon on the right is for use during the main course, for food that you can't capture with the knife and fork. Yes, I know the mashed potatoes make the peas stick to the knife, but let's not do that. (I'll cover manners on another page.)
The fork placed sideways at the top is for dessert, and may also include a small knife if cake is being served.
Glassware may include several items. Usually there will be one for water, which will be a deeper glass with a short stem, if any. There may be one or more smaller glasses for wine. If there are two wine glasses present, the larger and rounder one is for red; the other is for white. Sometimes the waiters will bring white wine to go with the first courses of the dinner, then remove the white wine glass, and fill the red wine glass for the following courses.
That just leaves the dinner knife and dinner fork. When I cover Manners, I'll discuss the various ways they are used. But in general, the knife is held in the right hand to cut food, while the left hand holds the food in place with the inverted fork.
In most of the world, the food is then put in your mouth with the fork in your left hand, with the fork inverted. In the U.S., someone long ago came up with the bright idea that the fork, with the food, must be switched to the right hand, turned over so the fork is right side up, and then put in your mouth. Either way is OK with me. But you need to judge how sophisticated the people around you are, because people unaware of the European method may just think you have bad manners if you put the inverted fork in your mouth with your left hand.
Either way, it is considered proper to cut each bite as you eat it. Don't cut up the whole piece of meat into bites unless you're feeding your kid.
When you are finished eating, even though there may still be food on your plate, place the dinner knife and fork together at the four o'clock position of your plate, with the knife and fork pointing at the center of the plate. This signals the waiter that even though there may still be food on the plate that you are finished, and, just as important, it makes it easy for the waiter to pick up the plate without dropping the knife and fork into your lap. Waiters get grumpy when they get a cleaning bill instead of a tip.
Without memorizing this lesson, you will find it easy to follow the basic principles: your place setting starts with your napkin and butter plate on the left, you normally use the utensils starting at the outside, and you signal the waiter when you're done.
Cooking is fun, and eating is more fun. And eating is more enjoyable and relaxing when you feel comfortable at a properly set table. Now we'll get back to cooking...
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