Gracefully Eating Your Business Lunch


by Adeodata Czink

Last month, we looked at the set-up of a successful business lunch: when to arrive, where to sit, and how to order and pay. This month we explore how to actually consume your meal with grace and elegance.

The Place Setting

Utensils are arrayed in the order that they are to be used during the meal. You start with the utensils on the outside edge and work you way in. In North America, spoons or forks placed horizontally above your plate are to be used for dessert. Sometimes, you will find a small knife laid across your bread plate. This knife is only to be used for buttering your bread. (Since we are at the bread part, you do not cut bread even with the bread knife and you do not butter the whole slice, then take bites from it. You tear off one little piece, butter it, and eat it. Then you tear off the next little piece, and so on.)

The bread plate is on the left. Your water glasses, wine glasses, and coffee cups are on your right. Always remember this because if you take your neighbour’s plate or cup, somebody else around the table is going to go without.

One Simple Rule

When you drink, the glass goes to your mouth, and your elbow is not on the table. The same guidelines apply to food. Your hand goes up to your face, your face does not come down to the hand. The elbow stays off the table. Craning your neck forward to meet your fork or your glass gives the appearance that you are awkwardly chasing your meal with an open mouth much like a fish chases a worm. It’s one of the most common errors I see, but simple enough to correct. Bring your food and drink to your mouth, and you will immediately appear much more polished.

Handling Alcohol When You Don’t Drink

If you do not drink alcohol but the waiter comes around to pour wine, your best bet is to let him pour half a glass anyway unless your abstention is a religious issue. Go through the ritual of toasting, hold the glass while the others are drinking, and then put down your glass. Few people, if any, will notice that you have not actually consumed the wine. This way, no one will harass you about why you are not drinking. Your peace of mind is often worth the half glass of wine.

What can you do when people ask why you do not drink? Lean close and whisper, “It’s personal.”  They feel you have taken them into their confidence, when you have actually said nothing. This method is much better than giving them the “none of your business” look.

Never ask someone else why they do not drink. There could be any number of reasons: her father was an alcoholic, he is in AA, he has a hangover, she is on medication, he is the designated driver, she does not like alcohol, he is allergic to it, it is against his religion. At any rate, the reasons are none of your concern.

Spooning Soup

How should you spoon your soup? If you are British, you spoon it away from you, and you tilt the bowl away from you too, so that the soup should not end up on your blouse. If you come from continental Europe, you direct both the spoon and the bowl towards you. After all, the reasoning goes, if it’s coming south, why should I stir it north? However, both are correct. It just depends on where you are from.

The Main Course

If you ordered spaghetti with a red sauce, I would like to meet you because you are either extremely skillful or just plain daring. Twirl only one strand of pasta at a time, then you get a manageable piece. Northern Italians twirl a strand of pasta against their plate, southern Italians against a spoon. Cutting spaghetti with your knife will impress no one. Most other main courses are eaten with a knife and fork.

If you wish to eat in the accepted North American way, cut one piece of meat and place your knife on the right-hand side of your plate. Switch your fork to your right hand with the tines curving upwards, and eat. Then back you go for another piece of meat. Europeans always hold the knife in the right hand, and the food goes into your mouth using the fork in your left hand.

When you are finished your meal, signal to your waiter that he may clear your plate by putting your knife and fork together at five o’clock, with the knife on the right, serrated side facing in.

Problems with the Food

When food arrives and it is not to your liking, do not be afraid to send it back. Be honest and polite with your feedback. Do not talk down to the waiter; he did not cook the meal. Offer a solution to the problem whenever you can. For example, you might ask the waiter to heat the dish a little more or to substitute a different salad since the one you are eating has too much garlic for your taste.

Manners At Their Best

At its core, good etiquette is about putting others at ease and never making them feel awkward or unsophisticated. Here is my best story about an excellent waiter who knew this golden rule. In Toronto, there was a businessman who was the guest of honour at an elegant luncheon. It was a hot day, and gazpacho was served. The guest of honour commented that the soup was cold. The waiter smoothly removed everyone’s soup, warmed up the guest of honour’s, and then re-served the same soup with the guest of honour’s now being warm. So there were: 6 cold gazpachos, 1 warm gazpacho. Nobody blinked. Customer service – and manners –  at their best.

Adeodata founded Business of Manners to share her vast knowledge of the social graces with others. Through her many workshops and seminars, Adeodata has helped people from all walks of life polish their image and improve their social confidence.

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