Q: In my professional life, I have to attend a lot of business dinners. Your recent columns with various serving do’s and don’ts have made me more conscious of some serving irregularities or improper manners occurring at some of these dinners.
I have felt that if a salad is preset, with a choice of salad dressings available, I should not ask for any salad dressing to be passed to me or pour salad dressing on my salad until after the opening remarks and an invocation (if there is one) have been made. Is that correct?
I have also felt it improper to start eating or buttering a roll which has been preplaced on my bread and butter plate until after opening remarks, etc. Correct?
I never start eating a course until everyone at my table has been served. Correct?
I also thought that waiters were not to remove plates until everyone at the table has finished eating that particular course. I see that occur a lot and I have often had my own plate removed when I wasn’t finished eating. I merely turned my head for a moment to speak to a tablemate and when I turned back, my plate was gone!
Thank you for the refresher on the “finished position,” but even if I do that I sometimes have a waiter interrupt my conversation to ask if I am finished. I feel like I should be directing his attention to the placement of my knife and fork, but I do not. Should I?
I often see my plate being placed in front of me with this big thumb totally inside the rim of my plate. I thought that was a “no no.” Is it?
If my dirty plate and a few others have not been removed from my table, but some of the others’ dirty plates have and they have started on their preset dessert, and the speaker has started speaking, can I expect the servers will not clear my plate? Should I should push away my dirty plate and bring down my dessert dish to start eating dessert?
If a dessert of mousse or pudding is served in a round little dish and it has a rather large round cookie ball on the top of the contents, can I use my fingers to pick it out and eat it bite by bite or am I expected to eat cut it up in chunks inside the contents with the dessert spoon provided?
A: Interesting observations. I have observed some of these as well. Unfortunately, because of budget restraints or any of a number of reasons, many wait staff do not receive training in proper serving. Here are the answers to your questions:
▪ Pouring salad dressing, etc.: At a formal business dinner, which involves a speaker and prescribed sequence of events, it is considered impolite to begin any process of eating, including passing or pouring salad dressing. before opening remarks or before the designated host at your table begins the process.
▪ Eating or buttering rolls: This falls into the same category as passing salad dressing and the same rule applies.
▪ Total plate service before eating: You are correct. Do not start eating from your plate until everyone else at your table has been served. The only exception may be this: If the server indicates there will be a short delay in serving one of your dinner mates, and that dinner mate requests everyone to begin eating and not wait for him or her to be served, then you may begin eating. To wait will only draw more unwanted attention to the individual who has not been served.
▪ Clearing of dirty plates: You are correct in that no dirty plates should not be removed until all diners at the table have finished with that particular course. However, because there may be a shortage of wait staff hired for large dinners, or because of how the various courses are scheduled to come out of the kitchen, or because of a program schedule which is obviously so tight the wait staff will not be able to keep up, regrettably, it has become more common to witness wait staff removing dirty plates as soon as they see a diner is finished with a particular course.
▪ Finished position: No, do not correct a wait staff member who apparently has not been trained to know the “finished position” placement of your silverware on your plate.
▪ Ugly big thumb on your plate: Disgusting, yes. Again, unfortunately, this wait staff person has not been trained properly in how to serve a plate without having the thumb touch anything other than the underside of the rim of the plate. Avoid eating any food this thumb may have touched. Do not add any condiments to this site.
▪ Moving dishes within your place setting. The applicable dining etiquette rule is this: Do not move any dishes within your place setting. This rule applies to a normal situation. If in the situation you describe, you witness the wait staff’s curtailment of removal of dirty plates at the point wherein the program continues, and if other tablemates have begun eating their dessert or have pushed their dinner plates slightly forward and placed the preset dessert dish in front of them, you may do the same so they will not feel uncomfortable. If you were to try to wait until after the speaker finishes or the program is officially ended, and your dirty plate is removed, most of your tablemates will be standing, ready to depart. Therefore, an attempt to eat your dessert at this point would be very improper.
▪ Eating garnishes: The dessert garnish you describe would be very difficult to try to cut with a spoon into bite-sized pieces within the serving dish provided. It is, therefore, proper to pick it up with your fingers and eat it in bite-sized bites from your fingers. After the first bite, you may place the cookie on a service plate, if there is one. If there is no service plate, do not return this rather large round cookie back into the pudding or mousse. Instead, finish it, and then wipe your fingers with your napkin.
Dianne Isbell is a local contributing writer. Send your etiquette questions to Lifestyle Editor Patrick Kuhl, Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.