In a hectic world, it can be hard to find the time to invite friends and family over for a special meal. There is an art to entertaining at home, but it can feel like foreign territory if you’re out of practice. However, what looks intimidating can actually be quite simple.
Perhaps no one knows this better than Chantal Wittmann, one of our award-winning senior lecturers. Chantal has held the title of MOF (Meilleur Ouvrier de France) since 2011, for her achievements in table arts and service. This world-renowned award is presented every four years in France, in honor of the best craftsmen nationwide. We spoke to Chantal about what makes a perfect dinner party.
Pleasure and Emotion
“For me, there are two kinds of meals: one for survival, and one for pleasure,” Chantal says. “In the experience of dining, ‘pleasure’ and ‘emotion’ are two words that are very important.” It is these meals for pleasure where Chantal has made her mark, with her primary focus being on the table. “The table is the place where so much happens in life: celebrations, announcements, and moments of both joy and sadness,” observes Chantal. “When you think of it that way, the table is really a symbol of life.”
Finding Harmony in the Details
Cultivating a special dining atmosphere is an art, but you don’t need to be a maître d’hôtel to host a memorable meal at home. Chantal recommends keeping the following tips in mind. “First, think of what kind of ambience you want to provide. Is it cozy and informal? Or glamorous and upscale?” she says. “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’s a casual pizza or a meal with multiple courses, 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.
Setting the Stage: Tips for a Festive Dinner Party
If you want to host a dinner party for a special occasion, Chantal has a few key tips to remember.
- Tablecloth: For a classic look, choose a light color. 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 a festive 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: If it’s not too crowded, go ahead and place all the necessary cutlery on the table. 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, as well as 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 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, cozy 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 both at the beginning and during the meal – that way, your guests can hear each other easily. But don’t be afraid to turn the music up as the evening progresses!
- Dress: As host, dress according to the occasion — you don’t want your guests to feel over or underdressed. In your invitations, you can even include a suggestion on attire (for example, “please join us for an evening in white”). The same applies to gifts — a note, such as “white wine welcome” – can help guests feel good about what they bring.
Welcoming Your Guests
Finally, a good host should have everything ready before the guests arrive. “Make them feel as if you’ve been waiting for them,” Chantal says. “Have everything on the table ready, prepare an aperitif corner, light the candles beforehand. That first impression is your chance to really ‘wow’ your guests.”
While dining, consider bringing food into the conversation to strike a balance between enjoying your company and enjoying your meal. “I sometimes find that we get so wrapped up in conversation that we forget to pay attention to the food. Perhaps we should take time to talk about each dish, the wine, the flavors, to really savor and appreciate the meal,” suggests Chantal.
The Joy of Giving
If the thought of hosting a dinner party still seems daunting, remember that the effort is its own reward. “There’s a real pleasure that comes from welcoming your guests and enabling them to enjoy themselves,” Chantal says.
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. And for the real trick to setting the perfect table? “The right table,” Chantal says, “is the one that invites your guests to come and sit down.”
Chantal Wittmann has over 30 years of teaching experience within the hospitality sector. Over the years, she has coached students for competitions and taught a range of subjects. As Gastronomic Restaurant Manager and Senior Lecturer at Glion Institute of Higher Education, Chantal specializes in the practical teaching of service and fine dining. She also specializes in floral art and is the head of Glion’s gastronomic restaurant, Le Bellevue – CLICK HERE to find out more and book your table.
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