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June 22, 2012 6:33 pm
A couple of weeks ago, an odd message appeared on Twitter. An American food writer, sitting in a very exclusive restaurant, posted a picture of a spoon. Unlike the average tweeted food porn, this was accompanied by a plaintive request: what is this thing and what is it for? The tweeter, Kat Kinsman, is managing editor of CNN Eatocracy and she was sharing a table with a group of other high-powered foodists at a dinner honouring Thomas Keller at the time she hit “send”. Kinsman has prior form with flatware, as she mentioned later: “I have an MFA [master of fine arts] degree in Metalsmithing and am always deeply amused by antiquated or single-purpose items like grape shears, lamb handles, fish knives, etcetera.” The spoon, as a rapid Google search established, was a cuillère à sauce individuelle, with a flat spatula-like bowl, so sauce can be scraped from the plate without tilting it, and a notch through which any superfluous fat can drain.
It’s reassuring to a food geek, of course, that such a specialised piece of kit exists. Yet the idea that a culinary Pythia of Kinsman’s stature had to connect with a worldwide network of food nerds to find out what the hell she was eating with means something is a little out of whack. As she puts it, “I felt in the presence of exceptional schmanciness.”
Any way you look at it, the use of utensils at table is culturally specific. In our own history, it was common to carry a knife in readiness for food. Only in the 17th century did the fork finally reach the English aristocracy, by way of France and Italy. Even then, it was regarded as an affectation and occasionally banned by the Church in various parts of Europe as an affront to God. The use of cutlery by ordinary people wasn’t common in England until the 18th century, when cheaper methods of mass production began to make such aspirational objects more widely available.
Like pretty much everything else the English have adopted, we quickly made cutlery into a class signifier. Throughout the Georgian and Victorian periods place settings expanded with great armouries of increasingly specialised and elaborately decorated utensils. Some, such as the soup spoon – with a wide, deep bowl and offset to remain level when bringing the soup to the mouth – were fantastically useful when eating socially and sumptuously dressed. Others, such as the fish knife – supposed to be useful in separating and lifting off cooked fillets – were worse than useless and became symbolic of arriviste ostentation. Perhaps this is the root of the longstanding rumour in foodie circles that the royal household doesn’t use fish knives (though they do appear at formal banquets). The Buckingham Palace press office politely “refuse to confirm or deny” this.
John Betjeman’s poem “How to Get on in Society” ruthlessly minces such pretensions, listing fish knives, serviettes, frills on cutlets, cruets, pastry forks and doilies. That’s six references to place settings in a 20-line poem widely regarded as one of the wittier comments on the British class distinction. Let’s face it, as a nation we’re probably more obsessed with what’s set around our plates than we are with what’s on them.
The haute cuisine restaurant is the exemplar of the notion that to dine well, one must lay the table well. My chance to understand the extent of contemporary table theatre came when I was offered a place on “The Art of Fine Dining” masterclass at the three-star Alain Ducasse restaurant at The Dorchester. The dining room contains what is often billed as the most beautiful table in London, “Table Lumière”, which is “surrounded by a luminescent oval curtain of 4,500 shimmering fibre optics” and equipped with what I can only describe as the Mother of All Sideboards, a floor-to-ceiling display cabinet containing the three sets of Hermès china, Puiforcat silverware and Saint-Louis crystal from which diners can select their own settings. Table Lumière also has its own separate dishwasher: that’s a man, not an appliance.
Nicolas Defrémont, the effortlessly suave restaurant director, dressed me in a brown overall and a pair of cotton gloves and took me through the process of setting one of the more ordinary tables. Table and chairs are aligned to the geometry of the room and centred under individual pools of light. The tablecloth is ironed into position. Crockery and cutlery are wheeled to the table on a special cart and polished individually, before being laid out using a complex system of measures based on the width of a finger (God help you if you don’t have Michelin-approved digits). As each piece is placed relative to the last, a simple error of millimetres at the beginning of the set-up can snowball, resulting in the whole table having to be reset. Defrémont believes that a setting should actually be as simple as possible – there’s no terrifying phalanx of weaponry these days. The starter instruments are laid on either side of the “show” or decorative plate and the waiter will exchange them for the correct bespoke tools according to your order.
Today’s show plates have a pattern on the front which must be aligned perfectly to the diner. On days when the aesthetic of the food requires plain ones, Defrémont explains, they are set so that, should the diner decide to flip them over to read the manufacturer’s name on the underside, they will be able to do so without the need for any troublesome rotation.
Sessions followed on napkin folding and the selection of the correct glass for various kinds of wine. Every single element was entirely logical, and planned so the customer’s experience should be seamlessly enjoyable. In fact, my abiding impression was of the incredible amount of work that goes into the setting that should never be noticed – a kind of antithesis of ostentation created with some of the most reassuringly expensive kit I’ve ever been allowed to handle.
As Ducasse represents the very highest level of three-star table art, there is an opposing philosophy.It doesn’t have a name, but you’ll sense its presence in restaurants that use plain white crockery and simple, even unmatched, cutlery. Probably the best example is St. John – no “art” to distract, no background music and staff in something more like chef whites than the starched outfits of traditional waiters. Simplicity usually extends to doing away with the side plate altogether and relying on the clean expanse of white tablecloth or paper slip on which to break the hand-made sourdough. Places such as Andrew Edmunds or Hereford Road have a similar, almost monastic, aesthetic which is intended to focus attention on the food while escaping any of the social pressures of formality.
At both ends of the scale the table setting remains a social bellwether – cutlery and crockery are still about class. We either espouse the pretensions of our forebears in new and subtle ways, or knowingly subvert them to show how little we care for bourgeois values (while remaining resolutely bourgeois). In the end, both positions rely on a forensic reading of social convention. Betjeman would have approved.
Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, 53 Park Lane, London W1, 020 7629 8866, www.alainducasse-dorchester.com. Tim Hayward is The Guild of Food Writers’ Food Journalist of the Year
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