Dinner Is Served: The Art of Hosting à la Française

With the end-of-year celebrations almost upon us, what is the best way to host a dinner à la française without committing a faux pas? Here are a few invaluable tips for putting on a meal fit for the finest French tables.
A scene from Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). © Rialto Pictures

In the olden days in France, young women from well-to-do families all had a bible of good manners, Usages du monde: Règles du savoir-vivre dans la société moderne (1889), by Baroness Staffe. But despite the aristocratic moniker – also used to write other successful works such as Mes secrets pour plaire et pour être aiméIndications pratiques pour réussir dans le Monde, dans la vieLa Femme dans la famille – the writer was in fact a commoner called Blanche Soyer, born in the Ardennes region in 1843. Raised by her two elderly aunts near Paris, she ended up living out her days in a burrstone house purchased with her royalties and never set foot in the aristocratic world. But an outsider’s perspective often offers the most insight.

The “baroness” had an infallible method for keeping women on the straight and narrow. After all, decorum is no laughing matter… The faux noble outlawed puns and jokes to avoid “tiring, irritating, or exasperating others in the conversation, who otherwise will be obliged to strain their minds to grasp and understand such ceaseless jest.” Above all, she insisted, women should watch their conversation and control themselves. “Topics about oneself must be kept to a strict minimum; they are almost always embarrassing or boring to others.”

Customs Rooted in Ancient French History

While some of these conventions may now raise a smile rather than dictating our daily behavior, others are still firmly established. For example, the rules from the chapters on the culinary arts are still used today, which led journalist Laurence Caracalla to adapt Baroness Staffe’s work. In her revamped Carnet du savoir-vivre (2008), she offers a contemporary retelling of the leading recommendations such as the art of receiving guests and appropriate table manners, while abandoning old-fashioned niceties such as hand-kissing. She justified her work by stating that France “is one of the rare countries where people still host guests at home instead of just going to restaurants.”

The origin of these table manners dates back to the royal French courts. “France was the first European court to give women a social status,” says Marie de Tilly, a Paris-based etiquette coach who offers classes in elegance, protocol and savoir-vivre à la française for diplomats from an array of different countries. “When the king was at war, women were tasked with protecting the monarchy by hosting banquets and playing a role in political life.” During the Renaissance, Catherine de’ Medici introduced forks from Italy into French customs. Later, in the 19th century, the bourgeoisie grew rich through trade and industry and began employing servants. As part of their new privileges, they decided to devote an entire room in their homes to meals, known as the “dining room.”

Timeless Etiquette

This “monarchical” tradition has endured and even evolved over the years, as demonstrated by the “affair” surrounding a table service purchased in June 2018 for more than 50,000 euros by the French president from the Manufacture de Sèvres porcelain factory. Destined for distinguished state dinners, the tableware set sparked outrage from some who decried a waste of public money. However, others believed it was a reasonable investment in the name of French art de vivre. Valérie Solvit, director of a communications agency, says that “in the current era of fast-food generations and meals-on-the-go, this statement by Brigitte Macron helps push the culinary arts – one of France’s timeless signatures – back into the spotlight.”

Evariste Richer, the artist chosen by Brigitte Macron, has drawn inspiration from a plan of the presidential palace during the Third Republic for the plates’ decoration, christened “Elysée Blue” in a nod to the renowned Sèvres Blue historically used by the factory. This latter shade was developed under Louis XV and popularized by Madame de Pompadour, the king’s chief mistress and a patron of the French arts. The initiative was launched to support French porcelain artisans faced with competition from Saxony and to encourage the aristocracy to purchase the tableware for their receptions.

Protocol and Seating Guests

Inviting people for dinner is a social gesture in France and the codes enshrining it have barely changed. While the gargantuan menus of times past have been slimmed down to remove the succession of hors-d’oeuvres and appetizers followed by fish, meat, cheeses, ice creams, and pastries, an overall sophistication remains and there are a few rules to bear in mind. The aperitif is served in the lounge, and guests are offered a choice of champagne (in a flute, of course), a liqueur, a spirit, wine, or a non-alcoholic beverage.

The seating plan follows strict codes to foster interesting interactions between guests, and men and women are sat alternately where possible. Couples who have been married for more than a year are separated, and the man is expected to converse with the women either side of him. “The host sits in the middle of the table,” says Marie de Tilly. A man invited for the first time is sat to the right of the woman of the household, and women must let the person next to them serve the wine.

Setting the Table à la Française

The layout of plates and cutlery is also important, and right-handed diners take precedence. Forks are placed to the left of the plate and knives to the right, positioned from the outside leading in according to the order in which the dishes are served. If soup is part of the meal, the spoon should be placed at the furthest position on the right, followed by the silverware for the appetizer, then the fish course. Finally, the cutlery used for the main course is placed closest to the plate.

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© Valérie Albertosi

The glasses are laid out harmoniously with the largest on the left for water (filled before being seated), followed by a medium-sized glass for red wine and the smallest for white wine. Champagne is supposed to be served before dinner and the flute does not usually have a designated place. However, guests who have not finished their champagne may bring it with them to the table.

Running down from the glasses to the plate, the cheese knife is placed with its blade facing inwards, followed by the dessert spoon with its handle facing right, and the dessert fork with its handle pointing left and its prongs face-down on the table. This particular tradition was developed during the Renaissance in France. At the time, coats of arms were engraved on the backs of silverware handles (but on the front in England). It was therefore customary to position the forks facing down to display the insignia to those in attendance.

The bread is presented in slices or as small loaves placed on a small plate below the water glass at the top left. The butter knife is generally placed diagonally on top with its blade facing downwards. The napkin (fabric, never paper) is folded into four and also found to the left just next to the fork. Ideally, there is one salt and pepper shaker for every two guests. It should be noted that table manners are not merely a matter of elegance; they also enable those who master them to distinguish themselves socially. What’s more, using these codes is a way for the bourgeoisie to assert their domination over the working classes, as explained by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his book Distinction (1979).

Sidestepping Faux Pas

Table conversation should be steered away from divisive or dull subjects such as politics, religion, money, and health. Before the dinner is hosted, guests should be asked about any diets, allergies, or foods they avoid. Candles (with unscented wax to avoid bothering anyone), are preferable as their glow is softer than electric light. The flowers decorating the table should also have no fragrance.

While propriety is priceless, there is no need to spend a fortune. There are no rules against buying candles from a supermarket, for example. What’s more, making a homemade dessert is a far more generous gesture than purchasing a yule log from a renowned patisserie, according to Laurence Caracalla. “An ironed, white, cotton sheet for a tablecloth, white plates, silverware – which can be found at flea markets – and transparent stemmed glasses, even ones bought from a regular store: These are the essentials for practicing the French culinary arts!”

Article published in the December 2018 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.