My life’s passion is the French concept, L’art de la table, which involves the physical elements of the place where your guests dine – the tablecloth, the cutlery, the glassware, the décor, the service – but above all, it is the ambience you create.
For me, there are two kinds of meals: there is the meal for survival, and the meal for pleasure. It is the latter of these two meals which is the clear objective of restaurant managers. In the experience of dining, ‘pleasure’ and ‘emotion’ are two words that are very important. The table is the place where so much happens in life: celebrations, announcements, moments of joy or even sadness. When you think of it that way, the table is really a symbol of life. And it is how the table is set that can determine the mood of a meal.
First, think of what kind of ambience you want to provide in your restaurant. Is it cosy and informal? Or glamorous and upscale? Next, ask yourself: how can you convey this ambience through the five senses? Whatever the mood, aim to have all the details of the meal in harmony with this ambience. Whether it is a casual pizza or a multi-course meal, the menu should match the table setting. But harmony is also achieved through many other elements, including lighting, music, decorations and even the dress code.
Let’s say you have been asked to host a private dinner celebrating a special occasion. Here are my top tips for creating a meal to remember:
- Tablecloth: For a classic look, choose a light colour. White is especially versatile, as just about any kind of tableware can be added on top, while light grey or silver also work well for the big occasion. Pro tip: Get rid of creases by ironing the tablecloth after placing it (evenly!) on the table.
- Dishware: Try white porcelain set on top of gold or silver presentation plates for elegance and sparkle. Leave a white napkin rolled with a silver ribbon on the porcelain plate, and for a final touch, add a chocolate or small gift.
- Cutlery: There should be a maximum of three pieces of cutlery on each side of the plate – knives and spoons on the right, forks on the left – and from outside to inside, cutlery should be placed in the order in which it will be used. A maximum of three pieces of cutlery should be above the plate, which could include a knife for cheese and a medium spoon and fork for dessert.
- Glassware: Place a maximum of four glasses for red wine, white wine, champagne and water. Glasses should be to the right of the plate, while bread and salad plates go to the left. Just remember: solids on the left, liquids on the right.
- Flowers and décor: You don’t need to know how to arrange a bouquet to make use of flowers. Something as simple as single white roses placed in small vases on the table can look great. Sprinkle a few sequins on the tablecloth for extra sparkle.
- Lights and candles: Make sure that guests can see their food, but avoid overpowering light. Candles are a must for creating a warm, cosy ambience; go for candles that match the tablecloth, and choose candles that are unscented – you don’t want artificial smells mixing with the aroma of your food.
- Music: Keep the music low at the beginning and during the meal so that your guests can hear each other easily. But don’t be afraid to turn the music up as the evening progresses!
Creating the ambience for a meal is a pleasure as well as an opportunity to leave guests with lasting memories. Many memories, after all, are formed at the social gatherings that take place at the table. As for the real trick to setting the perfect table? The right table is the one that invites your guests to come and sit down.
Chantal Wittmann is gastronomic restaurant manager and senior lecturer at Glion Institute of Higher Education, part of hospitality education group Sommet Education. She is also a Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Craftsman of France).