Without service, haute cuisine would simply not exist. This is where France sets the standard, its art of hosting a coveted model. A well-dressed table, impeccable body language, a ballet of waiting staff choreographed to perfection: it is an elegant, precise art devoted to the comfort and happiness of its clientele.
Manners and the art of service initially made their debut among the highest echelons of society further to the publication in 1530 of Civilitas morum puerilium, a handbook on childrens’ manners written by Erasmus. In the Middle Ages, dishes followed in succession and were presented to guests according to their rank, the most important dignitaries given priority. All the food was served from the same plate and it was customary for everyone to help themselves with their hands. In the mid 16th century, some order began to creep into service, with fruit, soups, roasted and grilled meats, followed by desserts.
But it was not until the 17th century that “service à la française”, or service in the French style, made an appearance, albeit vastly different from the version we know today: all the dishes were placed on the table at the same time, respecting a strict symmetry, under the watchful eye of the maître d’ or head waiter. Every guest was armed with a knife, spoon and fork, while chafing dishes and cloche covers kept the food hot. Fast forward one hundred years, and mealtimes had become an altogether more sociable affair, while at the same time more individualistic, each guest now equipped with their own plate. The order of dishes had also evolved as palates become more sophisticated; from this point on, savoury and sweet would be served separately in succession, sauces would be served on the side, and spices were increasingly subtle.
This movement would trigger another more radical development: servants superfluous to the requirements of the nobility, began to embrace new roles; firstly trading soup on the street (contemporary street food is not as revolutionary as some would believe), then opening restaurants where meat carvery was transformed into an art form. This was the golden age of great chefs such as Antonin Careme (1784-1833), and in their wake, food critics such as Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826).
Service in the Russian style, as is customary today, emerged in the 19th century; dishes were served in sequential order, with fewer courses and fewer servants too, so as to respect the privacy of guests. This move away from waiter-service transformed the dining experience once again, with dishes now served from the centre of the table, assisted by serving trollies. The first recipes from Escoffier, around shorter menus, appeared at this point, while brigades of kitchen staff began to take shape, instilling organisation and delegation to tasks. The art of tableware also gained momentum, founded upon increasingly elegant and inventive crockery and silverware.
“Everything is becoming increasingly stripped back, whether it’s the table settings or the dishes themselves, and specific moods are created. It’s a constant balancing act, a judicious blend of history and the present day.”
Philippe Rispal,Head of Food Service and Tableware at the Institut Paul Bocuse
The art of service – a historical, cultural movement – is now synonymous with French lifestyle. Anyone aspiring to attend the top hospitality schools look to France and its leading institutes such as the Institut Bocuse in the Rhone-Alpes region and Ferrandi in Paris. Maîtres d’, head waiters, restaurant managers and sommeliers flock to learn the principles and techniques to become part of this intricate ballet; refinement without ostentation. Philippe Rispal, Head of Food Service and Tableware at the Institut Paul Bocuse, places great emphasis on social skills and attitude in his students’ courses.
“We collaborate with actors and stage directors to work on the way they look, their intonation, rhythm, cadence and movements. It is important that each student remains his own person so as to connect with guests on a personal level.” From fast food to haute cuisine, excellence pervades every market sector. “Whether fileting sole, laying tables, opening wine bottles or ensuring even the tiniest detail, including colour coordination, is just right, everything focuses on the comfort of guests; we train interpreters, who bring intelligence to their every move,” continues Philippe Rispal.
How do you recognise good service? Relaxed diners, smiling, friendly staff who work discreetly in the wings, immaculately presented tables and food; basically, a relaxed atmosphere which requires, without even noticing, an extraordinary level of sophistication.
The French gastronomic meal, which joined Unesco’s list of “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” in 2010, is the pinnacle of culinary excellence. Much more than the art of eating and drinking well, the emphasis is on togetherness; sharing an experience within a strict set of rituals, where presentation is as important as the food itself, and the choice of dishes, the art of plating, the order in which they are served, table settings and service are all part of a tradition that is a constantly evolving. Today, France’s expertise in the matter extends far beyond its frontiers and is considered as the gold standard, and much more besides; it moves with the times and never ceases to evolve and reinvent itself. A very individual, bespoke offer has now become the norm, where each diner aspires to a strictly personal experience, different from that of fellow guests. The days of everyone ordering the same dish of the day are gone (even though some French bistros show some signs of resistance), now replaced by individually-tailored, carefully honed, even personalised dishes, for example due to allergies or food preferences. The devil is in the detail, and some take this to the extreme, logging the preferences of regular customers in readiness for their next visit.
As eating out evolves and finger food becomes more widely accepted, meal times shortened, and sommeliers and maîtres d’ a rare breed consigned to the realms of Michelin-starred dining, service stands firm. Standards will always need to be maintained, a human connection, a level of complicity to set the customer at ease, a discreet, level of attention. “Everything is becoming increasingly stripped back, whether it’s the table settings or the dishes themselves, and specific moods are created to chime with the venue and the style and cuisine of the chef. It’s a constant balancing act, a judicious blend of history and the present day”, explains Philippe Rispal (Institut Paul Bocuse). Aspiring to add a touch of splendour to the everyday. Technical prowess and human qualities are therefore vital cogs in the system and go hand in hand. Empathy and the ability to listen and understand people are absolutely essential skills. A sommelier for instance must know how to guide his clients, rather than tout personal tastes; encourage new discoveries and anticipate reactions, while respecting personal choice and expectations. The art of a tightrope walker, always at a half way house between risk and playing safe, guesswork and knowledge.
The art of carving, or flambé cooking, pouring sauce or jus, or decanting wine are just some of the specialised skills assigned to the waiting teams serving customers on the front line. The grace and elegance of their gestures and movements are necessary, even fundamental qualities, to ensure the smooth running of service, managed like a ballet.
Elegance is an attitude, concludes Benjamin Garcia (Vatel). “It’s smiling, how to speak and conduct oneself, how to welcome diners”. It can be learned and cultivated, with lessons on self-esteem for example, how to tie a tie, the rudiments of etiquette. This expertise is essentially found in Europe, notably in Switzerland, where the Lausanne hospitality school commands a very good reputation.
A large number of students come from all over the world to learn and become familiar with European and French excellence. “A culture of service exists in a number of countries.” adds Benjamin Garcia. “In Morocco, Thailand and the Philippines for example, but it lacks technique. It is good to be attentive and smile, but it isn’t everything.” Today, new requirements are starting to surface, opportunities for tourism in Montenegro for example, in the Balkans, Central and Southern Europe and also in Africa, (Namibia, Kenya) and India. The French touch still has enormous potential: the art of service is not set to disappear any time soon!
Every country or culture has its own rules of service. The fact we do not eat the same way in Beijing or Lima, Helsinki or Timbuktu is self-evident. The differences may have become less apparent over time, but still exist today. Take chopsticks for example, which appeared in China during the Shang dynasty, more than a thousand years before our time, and were initially used to stir the fire and in cooking, before being used as eating utensils. While European tables attributed great pomp and ceremony to carving food with elaborate arms, by reference to a kind of violence which had enabled the aristocracy to rise to the highest levels, in Asian culture, meat was traditionally carved before reaching the table.
Offering uncarved meat is in fact still considered discourteous even today; everyone should be able to help themselves with ease from a shared plate. This custom extends to Africa and the Maghreb, where food can be taken with your hands (more precisely the right hand index finger and thumb in Muslim countries, since the left hand is considered impure). Closer to home, the British place their forks upwards, line their glasses above their plates and place their serviettes on side plates. Just a few subtle differences with France to feed the debate!