“Mise en place”. The forgotten Art of the table!


By my friend Christina Christodoulidou 

If you have watched Pretty Woman film, I am sure that you still vividly remember the restaurant scene where an escargot flew from Julia’s Roberts “pince à escargot” to the Maître d’s hand!!!

The etiquette of using the right piece of cutlery for each course in order not to make a fool of ourselves in formal dinners was and still is skill to be mastered. Unless of course you are Julia Roberts and you can get away with a smile!


This knowledge is even more important from a professional side of view. Using the correct cutlery to set up a table, “la Mise en place” is something that is not generally practiced efficiently in our days.

Call it lack of time, proper training, or savoir vivre, no or almost no dining experience is so formal anymore unless of course you are invited to the White House or you are playing a scene in Downton Abbey.

Coming to add to the above theory is the fact that in our days the Maître d’ is no longer the most important person in a restaurant. This is the era of the star Chefs whether we are talking about the corner Trattoria or a 3 star Michelin restaurant. They are the ones responsible for the conception, creation and plating of the food that comes to our table ready to be savoured. The only thing the waiters have to do, is carefully deliver it to the guests, without messing up the artful display. So we no longer have the need for table side service, skilful Maître d’s, commis de rang or “pince à escargot” for that matter!

Having said all of the above there are still some basic rules that are quite easy to follow for correctly setting up the table and no worries, I have left the ruler in Carson’s hands!

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The Table Cloth:

If you are covering a table with four legs make sure that the corners of the table cloth fall on top of each leg. The main table cloth crease should be aligned with the main room entrance.

The Napkin:

Should be placed 1cm from the edge of the table. Even though special folding techniques may look impressive, for health reasons, you should avoid manipulating the napkins as much as possible. My personal suggestion; just place it flat on the table or folded in half.

The basic table set up (Le couvert de base):

  • The napkin placed 1cm from the table edge
  • The main course knife placed 1cm from the table edge and 1cm to the napkin’s right side
  • The main course fork placed 1cm from the table edge and 1cm to the napkin’s left side
  • The bread plate placed 1cm left of main course fork and 10cm from the table edge. On the bread plate we place a butter knife (knife’s blade to face left)
  • The water glass placed 1cm higher from the tip of the main course knife
  • The wine glass placed slightly below the water glass (Glasses’ stems should be aligned) 

Silverware

  • Cutlery should be placed according the menu’s service order (starting from the far right /left and moving inwards)
  • On the left hand side of the napkin we never place:
  • More than three pieces of silverware
  • 2 pieces of the same shape or size (exception: 2 main course forks)
  • On the right hand side of the napkin we never place:
  • More than four pieces of silverware
  • 2 pieces of the same shape or size
  • On the top of the napkin we never place:
  • More than two pieces of silverware
  • 2 pieces of the same shape or size

The dessert fork is always placed the closest to the napkin. If on the menu there is cheese and dessert to be served we only place the dessert cutlery on top of the napkin and the cheese cutlery is placed on the table right before cheese is served.

Note: when cheese is served, the bread plate, butter knife, salt and pepper should not be removed from the table.

Glassware

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Baccarat Czar

We never place on the table

  • More than four glasses
  • 2 glasses of the same shape and size
  • We always place a water glass (with the exception of a champagne only meal (please invite me) – no water glass is placed on the table in that case)

There is no official rule as how the glasses should be set on the table. We should always make sure though that these are placed in a way, that they do not disturb the guests or the service brigade. The two most commonly practiced options are:

  • In a diagonal line 1cm from the tip of the main course knife
  • Forming a square taking in consideration the order in which the wines will be served.

If the menu to be served requires more silverware or glassware than the maximum number that can be set on the table, these should be added just right before the corresponding course is served. 

What type of cutlery should be set for…

Fried eggs

Dessert spoon and fork. If the dish includes bacon add a first course knife placed on right hand side of the napkin on the left side of the dessert spoon.

Omelettes, scrambled and poached eggs

Main course fork placed on the right hand side of the napkin.

Note: Avoid using silver cutlery when serving eggs since once in contact with the eggs it will be oxidised and result to a rusty egg taste! Use stainless steel instead or horn or even plastic if you are at home (always depending where home is of course.)

Rissoles, Croquettes, soufflés, puff pastry, pasta gnocchi and rice

Main course fork placed on the right hand side of the napkin.

Quiches, ramequins, croque-monsieur (madame), tartelettes, barquettes

First course fork and knife

Melon and Parma Ham

First course fork and knife

Caviar (portion)

Mother of pearl knife or first course knife (avoid silver as it alters the taste of the caviar)

Caviar with served on Blinis

First course fork and knife (again avoid silver)

Smoked Salmon

First course fork and knife

Lobster Medallion (served cold)

First course fork and knife

Lobster in half shell (served cold)

First course fork and knife, lobster plier placed left and lobster curette placed right, finger bowl a plate for the shell waste

Lobster (off the shell served hot)

Fish knife and fork. If the dish has sauce add sauce spoon placed right (and to right of the knife)

Oysters in half shell

Oyster fork placed right, finger bowl

Moules (mussels) Marinière

Fish knife and fork, dessert spoon placed right (and to the right of the knife), finger bowl and plate for the shell waste

Bouillabaisse

Fish knife and fork, soup spoon placed right (and to the right of the knife), finger bowl plate for the shell waste

Frog legs

First course fork and knife finger bowl and plate for the waste

Escargot (Julia’s favourite – Roberts not Child!!!)

Snail tong placed left, special snail fork placed right and tea spoon placed right (and to the right of the fork)

Meat dishes

Main course knife and fork

Fish dishes

Fish fork and knife

Poultry and Game (poussin, pigeon, quail)

First course fork and knife finger bowl and plate for the waste (optional)

Steak Tartar

Main course knife and fork

Asparagus spears

Main course fork placed right and finger bowl

Corn on the cop

Finger bowl

Cheese

First course knife and fork

Fruit served whole

First course fork and knife finger bowl

Fruit Salad

Dessert spoon and fork

Fruit Tart

  • Served as part of a meal: Dessert spoon and fork
  • Served in the afternoon: Dessert fork or special tart fork placed right 

And now you are all set for Highclere Castle! And don’t forget to correctly dress the part otherwise Violet might take you for the waiter!

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