All Set - Mastering Cutlery

Two forks, three glasses of different sizes and shapes, several knives and two or three utensils which look like surgical implements... For some people, a table set in the French style is as arcane as a voodoo ritual or the rules of the imperfect subjunctive. Although its origins are often logical, as is the case with voodoo rituals (or the imperfect subjunctive), this does not quite explain the enormous pleasure we can derive from learning all about it.

Mastering cutlery

On parade

Soup spoon, dessert spoons, knife, fish knife, cheese knife, oyster or cake forks ... how do we get our bearings in this jungle of cutlery in a place setting?

There are a few simple rules governing this artificially complicated arrangement: one utensil (or pair of utensils) per dish, forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right. So far so good.

But which ones do we use for which dish, and above all what is the rule for setting them out? Once again, it is logical: the utensils to be used with the first course are placed on the outside, then you work your way inwards towards the plate.

Order of protocol

Lay out your utensils as follows, depending on your menu: hors d’œuvre knife and fork, a fish knife and fork, if required, then a knife and fork for the main course. Cheese and dessert cutlery can be placed between the plate and glasses at the start of the meal.

It is customary to remove plates and cutlery after the main course and salad before setting the table for cheese, for which only a knife is essential in the French style (although the English custom of a fork is convenient), and then again for the dessert. This is done to avoid a clash of flavors.

Note that whether salad is served before cheese (in the traditional style), or as a starter (a modern practice) it is customary not to cut it with a knife. In fact, in the days when blades were made of soft steel, it oxidized them. Nowadays this is just because knives are unnecessary – a well-prepared salad does not need cutting.

A spoon is usually set for desserts, ice-cream, sorbet etc., with a cake fork for pastries, and even a knife if required.

Optional extras

Is this straightforward enough? Or too straightforward? Because the range can be extended almost indefinitely with further refinements. Saint Barts adds a seafood pick. It has a ridiculous name, but it is very handy for extracting the tender flesh from crab claws and legs, lobsters, spiny lobsters, Dublin Bay prawns, king prawns, shrimps etc. Note that the pick is not raised directly to the mouth as its little prongs could easily cut your lip. Make a little pile of tasty morsels, season them and use a fork to eat them.

Purists, snobs and the British royal family still remove seafood from shells with a knife and fork, without ever using their fingers. They also peel oranges, pears, papaya and mango like this… If you prefer to use your fingers, nobody will raise an eyebrow! But if you want to be sure to avoid embarrassing your guests, make sure that your seafood is prepared in such a way that nobody needs a hotel and catering diploma to eat it.

Still on the subject of seafood – an oyster fork is the ally of seafood enthusiasts generally. It also works wonderfully on clams, cockles, abalones, venus clams, urchins (ah yes, urchins), although some prefer to swallow the latter straight from the shell.

Some goldsmiths and silversmiths sell, or used to sell, seafood spoons with a sharp edge to cut the mollusk’s stalk easily and retrieve the delicate flesh. Could this be a good idea which homeware stores should revive?

There are also caviar knives and spoons made of horn to avoid crushing the precious eggs, but they are as rare as caviar itself. Yet you have a better chance of finding them in St Barts than you would less elitist snail tongs and forks … in Burgundy.

What next?

How do you handle this jumble of silver or stainless steel cutlery on the table? Avoid placing it on the table while you are eating, (to spare the tablecloth, even if there isn’t one). Cutlery must either be “in the mouth or on the plate”, as my grandmother used to say, unlike bread which the French place on the table (but the very civilized use of that English import the bread plate is becoming more widespread).

Once you have finished eating, place your knife and fork in your plate without crossing them. The correct position is to place your knife and fork parallel to each other at two o’clock. Why? By royal decree dating back to Louis XIV? Not at all – it is to help the person clearing the table, as in France food is served from the left and cleared from the right. Try it for yourself and see!


Place your casually folded napkin to the right of your plate, that’s all!

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