Know Your Place
GATHERING HER STUDENTS around a small table covered in a crisp white cloth, fine white china and silver cutlery, Marie de Tilly, style adviser for the French foreign affairs ministry, explains the rules of the 'protocol' dining table.
'A beautiful table will open one's appetite,' the slender, elegant de Tilly reads from a prepared script in heavily accented English. 'The pronged points of the fork are placed down so they touch the table. Plates are placed 3cm from the edge of the table, 60cm apart ... wine bottles are never placed on the table.'
As she goes through the speech, refraining from smiling as if that would distract from the seriousness of the rules of arranging a table comme il faut, de Tilly's small group of students at La Belle Ecole - a private school set up in 2002 to teach the French art of living - are silent, eyes wide open, almost not daring to blink lest they miss one of the multitude of etiquette rules that France has developed since Catherine de Medicis introduced the two-pronged fork, fine earthenware and glasses into French custom in the 16th century.
De Tilly says aristocrats refined table decoration in the 17th century, arranging everything in perfect symmetry - which is how the French generally prefer their aesthetics. Just to complicate matters, in the 19th century, when Paris became the gourmet capital of the world, the Russian service appeared. Rather than dishes for each course being presented to guests all at once, they were served in succession. At the same time, Saint Louis crystalware perfected a new type of glass - stemware - that also needed its own set of rules.
'In the first position will be the water glass, followed by a medium-sized glass in which the white wine or Bordeaux will be served, and then, if required, a champagne coupe or flute,' de Tilly says.
At about the point where even the most determined student of the art de vivre might be swayed to forgo sit-down dinners for ever and stick with buffets, de Tilly reverts to French.
'Now,' she says, looking up from her notes and beaming at her students, including a woman from Hong Kong who has recently moved to Paris with her French husband, a Japanese florist, a French porcelain painter, and an event-planning trainee, 'we start to deconstruct the protocol table and show what's happening today.'
The class is divided into pairs and given an assignment. Stacked on tables is an array of tableware. On the sofa are place mats and napkins, and next to it bouquets of flowers, bowls of fruit and vegetables. From these, the students are to come up with their own settings, paying attention to the rules of table etiquette, but using their imaginations to create something new.
'You can add a bit of originality with flowers or fruit, put your old Hermes scarf on the table [as a tablecloth]. Mix colours. Transform objects,' de Tilly says.
To spark their imaginations, she tells them that 17th-century French king Louis XIV put goldfish in glasses so that people wouldn't drink too much water.
'Play with symmetry, but update it.' Her proteges scour the apartment and challenge each other to be daring. De Tilly keeps up her running commentary: 'Look in the fridge. You don't have to go out and buy everything. Use what you already have at home.'
In this case, 'home' is a large private apartment that La Belle Ecole rents for its classes. It is stocked with some of the finest tableware money can buy: Hermes dishes, Christofle cutlery, Saint Louis glasses, hand-painted dinnerware from small French producer Marie Daage.
After about half an hour, the three groups have used the same supply of material to come up with completely different effects. One group has placed red bowls on red-and-white Hermes-patterned small, flat plates, in turn placed on blue dinner dishes, matching blue napkins to the left, and modern cutlery more or less where it should be. Rambutans and exotic white buds have been set in a gleaming silver wine bucket to create an unusual centrepiece.
Another group has gone for a romantic look with hand-painted bread plates on top of blue dinner dishes. Long-stemmed, coloured wine goblets are set next to red water glasses and fancy crystal candleholders. It's a bit baroque, yet modern and classy. 'Very intimate, tres couple, amoureux,' de Tilly says.
The third group has placed an aubergine and a rambutan on top of the napkins, and kept the 'horizon' of its place-setting low by using short-stemmed crystal wine and water glasses. The dinner dishes are of matching design, but different colours.
De Tilly is delighted with the results. But she has a few suggestions - a stem of bending flowers to break the flat plane of one setting. She corrects the direction in which one group has placed the dessert cutlery. On one setting, she inserts little feathers between a transparent bread dish and a big flat plate, just to see what effect it might have.
Although for a ceremonial dinner one wouldn't pile the soup plate on top of a small flat dish on top of the main course dish, de Tilly says today that sort of thing is acceptable. 'You can use a bread plate also as a dessert plate,' she says. After all, it means one less trip back to the kitchen for the hostess, who nowadays is likely to work and doesn't have domestic help.
At Euro150 ($1,500) for two hours, classes at La Belle Ecole aren't cheap. But the students say they're worth it. 'I got a lot of inspiration,' says Karen Jourdan, a young Hongkonger who says that before, she had no idea how to decorate a table.
Some might think the French are born with a natural savoir faire when it comes to matters of cuisine and how to serve it. But Laurence Charmat, an events planner, says she didn't know all the rules of table-setting etiquette before she came to the class. 'We've lost the tradition,' she says.
'With me, I'm more classic,' says Sophie de Chastellux, an artist who creates personalised decor including painted porcelain. 'I'm very much in the traditional [mould]. But for me, it's important to depart from my classics.'
Table setting is only one aspect of the art de vivre that Belle Ecole teaches. Among the 20 classes it offers are flower arranging, French etiquette (in which one learns how to behave during a business lunch or cocktail party), how to make French pastry and how to choose and smoke cigars. Next spring La Belle Ecole will introduce a full week of instruction, priced at about Euro2,500, in various aspects of the art de vivre for those who want an intensive introduction to French ways.
Most classes are given in private homes and prestigious hotels. But don't be discouraged if your abode isn't quite up to the standards of the Hotel de Crillon. The main thing is your creativity.
'All the elements here are top - the glasses, the plates,' says de Chastellux. However, 'You can do things with what you have at home and [what you] give with spirit. When you do a table, it gives joy. One isn't in a depression.'
Classes, in groups of eight or 10, are taught in French and English. Belle Ecole, 7 rue Scheffer, Paris, tel: 33 1 47 04 50 20. E-mail email@example.com
Host and hostess should sit opposite each other - if the table is rectangular, they should sit at either end of it.
The special invited guest sits to the right of the hostess, others are arranged in order of age and position, the youngest members of the party sitting at the end.
Cutlery is placed to the left and right of the plate in the order in which they are to be used, starting from the outside. Forks on the left of the plate, knives and soup spoons to the right.
Dessert cutlery is not put out in advance unless it is an intimate dinner, in which case it is placed between the plates and glasses, in the following order: cheese knife, a dessert spoon, a knife and a fruit or cake fork.
Keep double-sided scotch tape on hand to stick decorations to goblets, candlesticks and other pieces of tableware.
Water is poured into glasses before the guests are seated for dinner.
Don't point fork tines upward. They should be face down, towards the table, allowing the emblem or
coat of arms on the back of the fork to be seen.
Never place wine bottles on the table.
Carafes can only be left on the table if they are pretty or antique.
Don't bother with place cards unless you are serving 10 or more people.
Don't mix up the direction of dessert cutlery. Cheese knives and dessert spoon handles are towards the right, fruit or cake fork handles towards the left.
Tinted wine glasses add sparkle, but if your guests are connoisseurs, forgo the extra flash and use transparent stemware so that everyone can savour the colour of the wine.
Don't serve coffee at the dining table, but rather withdraw to the living room and serve it there.
Location Grissini Stylist Jennifer Cardenas