Rob’s Rules: The Feat to Eat

March 23, 2012

By Rob Schaefer

There is no clearer indication that times have changed than watching people eat. It is often amusing, fascinating and revolting at the same time. Several years ago I had the pleasure of meeting an Aboriginal man from Australia. He was right out of the bush and completely untouched by western civilization. I watched him eat an entire plated dinner without using any flatware or napkin and he did it with beauty and elegance. It was a dance with his fingers. The impact of that evening will stay with me always as it reminded me that HIS WAY was THE WAY for thousands of years…and still is in many parts of the world. And yet he ate an entire meal without spilling a drop but twenty-something college students and people in our work force cannot handle two forks and a soup spoon. In ancient Europe, stale bread slices known as “trenchers” were used to slop up the food from plates and bowls. In Asia, chopsticks evolved…the very first spoon is believed to have been a seashell tied to a stick. And in most coastal civilizations, shells were used as eating utensils. We have come a long way!


How to properly use a knife, fork and spoon is more than getting dinner from the plate to your mouth. It can be the deal breaker on a job interview and save you from embarrassment and ridicule at a social event. Blaming your mother, or the love of fast food, is no excuse with educational resources such as this. Rules of etiquette were designed to help you at the table, not make it a feat to eat.

When approaching the table, gentlemen should always assist the ladies in seating. Napkins should be unfolded and laid across the lap, never used as a bib. We wipe our mouths with the fold of the napkin. Bread and wine are offered first. If the butter or margarine is not preset on the bread plate, take a small amount on your bread plate. Bread and rolls should be pulled apart with your hands into small pieces. Butter each piece individually as it is consumed. The butter knife or spreader is laid across the bread plate and remains there during dinner. If there is a bread basket on the table, it is passed to the right.

Many facilities use a multi-purpose glass for all beverages. With finer dining, glassware will vary in size and include a water glass, red and white wine glasses and possibly a champagne flute. The white wine glass is thinner with a smaller bowl. This is to prevent your hand from warming the chilled wine. Red wine has the fullest bowl to allow maximum surface space and release the bouquet of the wine. Champagne glasses have a narrow “flute” to prevent bubbles from escaping too rapidly. As servers come around to pour, never turn your glass upside down if you do not want a particular drink. Simply put your hand over the mouth of the glass to indicate no. Generally, the server will then remove the glass. The water glass is notorious for dripping. There is no real way around this but I slightly drag the glass on the table linen before I pick it up to remove excess condensation.

There are two basic styles to use your knife and fork: the American style, which causes you to shift utensils during the dining process, or the Continental style, which allows you to keep your fork and knife in the same hands during the meal. I was raised by a strong, southern woman who instilled the continental method of dining in us. And I use that often today and I thank my mother Linda for always helping me feel at ease and appropriate at any social function. It is important to remember that once you begin in either style, the flatware never sits on the tablecloth again. Once you are using it during the course, it will rest on the plate or saucer and never touch the table linen again. In the following photos I will demonstrate both of these methods.


Notice that the fork is in my left hand and I have turned it so the points or “tines” are down. The knife is in my right hand and I use it to cut a bite from the food.


Once I have cut a bite, I rest the knife on the plate and shift the fork from my left to my right hand. Then the right hand carries the bite of food to my mouth. And then the process is continued until the meal is consumed. Emily Post refers to this as the “Zig-Zag” method.


When you put your knife down during the bite, put the fork across the top of your plate with the tines down and the sharp edge of the knife facing you.


When you have completed the meal, to indicate that you are finished and that the server may clear your plate, position the fork and knife at the eleven/five position. The fork will have the tines facing up and the knife blade will face you. Imagine the plate as the face of a clock. The tip of the fork and knife will point towards the numeral 11 and the bases towards the numeral 5.


The continental style of dining is commonly seen in Europe and I think is less stressful for diners. The fork is always held in the left hand and the knife is always held in the right hand. They do not shift places at any time.


Notice where my fingers are placed in this photo and that the tines and knife blade face down.


In this photo I only start turning the fork upright as I raisethe bite to my mouth.

As you can see, it is an easy process to hold your primary utensils and eat properly. Just relax and allow the tip of your index finger to guide them.


The fork and knife should be crossed over each other if you pause during dining. And then go the eleven /five position when completely finished but with the tines down. It is that easy!


Soup during a meal will either be served in a cup or a soup bowl. It is always accompanied by a base plate. The soup spoon is a larger, deeper spoon and will be on your right. The proper way to eat soup is to pick up the spoon with your right hand and hold the handle of the spoon much like a pencil. If you imagine the bowl as a clock, you will draw the soup into the spoon moving it toward the twelve o’clock position. Never completely fill the spoon, and once at the top of the bowl, run the spoon against the rim of the bowl to remove any drips. Then bring the spoon to your mouth and sip from the side of the spoon closest to you, not the end.


When you pause during the soup course, leave your soup spoon in the bowl with the handle tilted towards the four o’clock position. When you have completed the soup course, remove the spoon and place it on the right side of the bowl on the base plate. Never leave it in the bowl unless the plate is not there.


I am often asked what kind of food is permissible to eat without a knife and fork. There are many but it also relates to the circumstances around you. Fried chicken at a picnic or family dinner is perfectly acceptable to eat with your hands, however, many upscale restaurants are now serving fried chicken and in that setting, I would cut it away from the bone and then eat it in small bites. Shish-kabob should be removed from the wooden skewer with your fork and then eaten! I turn the fork upside down and then pull the various items off and onto the plate. DO NOT pick it up and bite from the skewer!

According to the United States Dining Etiquette Guide, bacon is another item that prompts the question. If bacon is served on the plate crisp and dry, you can eat it with your fingers. If it’s thick cut bacon, chewy, with fat, use the knife and fork. Shellfish may require the assistance of a cocktail fork. Small shrimp with the tail on or fried shrimp are acceptable to eat with your fingers. Large sandwiches should be cut in half and then eaten with your hands. Other items considered “legal finger food” would be anything in a tortilla shell or pita bread, corn on the cob, steamed artichokes and sushi.

This column is meant to provide practical advice, tips and rules of engagement you need in the meeting and event planning industry. If you have a question, whether it’s how to dress, how to address your guests or what to serve as the main course, e-mail Rob at [email protected]. Your question might just inspire the topic of his next column! Rob Schaefer is Vice President of Steven Becker Fine Dining in St. Louis.


1) Stick with one style of eating – American or Continental – and do not mix the two!
2) Slow down and take small bites, especially when you are nervous or anxious.
3) At no point do you place anything on the charger or lay your used utensil on the table linen.
4) When someone requests that you pass an item such as bread or cream, please do on the right if possible and never “help yourself” first and then pass it. It should be passed to the individual and then returned if you need to use it.
5) If you do not want a particular beverage, place your hand over the mouth of the glass to indicate no. Turn nothing upside down.
6) Place your napkin in your lap immediately and never place it on a dirty plate.
7) If a filet or steak is served, you may be offered a steak knife. Use this knife to cut the steak as it will make it much easier and look a bit more polished.
8) Never ask for soda or condiment not already on the table during a sit-down dinner.
9) Drag your water glass slightly against the table linen to remove excess condensation.
10) TURN YOUR CELL PHONES OFF during the meal or don’t bring them.


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