Sunday, June 07, 2009

CHATTER 22 Influences on Dining Styles

The gradual change from a strictly formalised to a more diner-friendly style of service is a feature of gastronomic significance which occurred in the nineteenth century. The following essay was Sandra's response to this question, in the Adelaide University Master of Gastronomy course, describing the differences between service à la française and service à la russe, and the consequences of the introduction of service à la russe.

If we are what we eat we are also how we eat. The manner in which food is prepared, and meals arranged, is an expression of our psychological identity as well as our cultural background. This is remarkably illustrated by the change from service a la francaise to service a la russe.

Service a la francaise was adopted in France early in the 17th Century.[1] It is characterized by a preset table with a striking, sometimes edible, centrepiece and a large number of symmetrically placed dishes set out according to strict rules.[2] The food for the first course was set out before the guests entered the room.[3] The host served only the soup and carved the fish and meat. Many dishes were not touched and others completely consumed.[4] A second course constituting a multitude of roasts and side dishes followed.[5] Crumbs, or the tablecloths, were then removed to reveal a fresh cloth.[6] A cornucopia of elaborate desserts followed. There were often well in excess of 100 dishes.[7] Servants were at hand to remove and replace dishes and serve wine.[8]
Guests were seated according to rank and importance and food appropriate to their positions was placed before them.[9] This feudal arrangement emphasised the social inequality between diners. They discussed dishes, passed food and assisted each other to create a desirable meal for themselves.[10] This encouraged light casual conversation however it inhibited serious and meaningful discussions from which policies or conclusions could be reached.[11]

Service a la francaise had several shortcomings. It often resulted in cold and congealed food and sauces producing a meal of good ingredients but poor taste.[12] Kitchens had to be very large to prepare the multiplicity of dishes and accommodate numerous ovens, spits and utensils. Dining was a chaotic and confusing affair due to the constant activity at the table[13]. It was expensive and grossly wasteful. Service a la francaise had the advantage that diners could design their own dinner and enjoy doing so with neighbouring guests. The vast array of dishes offered allowed the diet conscious “to find something appropriate for his individual humoral temperament”.[14] Those with dietetic concerns could take food suited to their disposition and health needs. There were fewer servants around so gossip and conversation could flow freely. They were gay and rowdy affairs. The aims of the host were to “dazzle the eye rather than feed the stomach”[15] and to display wealth and hospitality. The emphasis was on the social affair, the gastronomic aspects of the meal were relatively unimportant. Dinners were abundant, dramatic luxurious and sumptuous and “could not fail to seduce”.[16] The remnants of service a la francaise are seen today in the smorgasbord or buffet. This provides a convenient way of entertaining larger numbers of guests in a practical manner in today’s small urban homes. It recreates something of the social atmosphere of service a la francaise.

Service a la russe became popular in Paris after the Russian Count Kourakin introduced it in about 1830.[17] It came into common use in England and Europe around 1870.[18] It is based on the principle of a limited number of courses and dishes each served to every guest. It was adaptable for both the wealthy and the petit bourgeoisie. It led to a different atmosphere whilst maintaining something of the former display. With room to set the table formally with elegant crystal, crockery and cutlery and elaborate floral centrepieces,[19] the emphasis now moved to the palate. The harmony and tastes of dishes became central to the meal. Each guest was offered the same meal,[20] which imbued the dinner with a sense of equality appropriate to the spirit of the French revolution. Food was presented immediately it was ready. Roasts could be carved in the kitchen, on a sideboard by a skilful servant or at the table by the host.[21]

Service a la russe was much quieter. There were servants constantly at hand inhibiting gossip, but here uninterupted serious discourse was possible. The number of dishes served might be as few as 10 reducing as the centuries progressed, greatly minimizing expense and waste.[22] Menus became essential so guests could organize their choices and pace their meal.[23] Smaller kitchens were adequate for culinary needs and to incorporate modern technology in ovens and advances such as water taps.

Incited by discourses by literati, such as Grimod and Brillat-Saverin, interest in gastronomy escalated early in the 19th century. The meal had changed from a spatial to a temporal event.[24] This linear service allowed diners to discuss and compare dishes. It also created the ability of restaurants to have menus and cost services which could not function otherwise.[25] Reduced availability of fresh local food, increasing urbanization, and a different attitude to life of the bourgeoisie were all factors in restaurants becoming more popular. The wealthy, industrious, social climbing upper middle classes had little time for leisure or lengthy meals and no need to celebrate seasonal abundance. Restaurants allowed them to be seen and display their status and wealth without the expense of lavish home entertainment.[26]

One of the consequences of service a la russe was a change in the relationship of the chef to the diner. It became the responsibility of the chef to plan the menu[27] and to produce meals that were elegant, tasty and flowed harmoniously. He needed to prepare interesting, novel, flavoursome and creative dishes that would attract clientele. The palate was becoming more significant than the entertainment. “Flavour takes precedence over style”. [28]This sowed the seeds of today’s celebrity chef as a “tastemaker, an arbiter elegantiae”.[29] Acceptance of his creations became a mark of a sophisticated palate.

Modern restaurants use elements of both service a la russe and service a la francaise. Restaurants such as the Melba[30] offer a la carte dining, hot and cold buffets and extensive desserts and have four chefs preparing buffet foods to patrons taste. Service a la russe is seen at its modern peak in the degustation menu which chefs use to display their talents. At El Bulli the aim is “to create dishes and techniques that engage guest’s sensory, emotional and intellectual faculties to the full, to surprise them and to encourage them to experience food in new and unexpected ways”.[31] Although patrons surrender their choices to the chef adjustments are made for allergies and particular dislikes. Whilst servants do not abound constant interruptions by waiters describing dishes and how they should be eaten, “chef recommends this be eaten from the left to right”[32] may interfere with conversation. The chef expects concentration on his food. He has become the guru of gastronomy.

These changes in dining styles that began over 200 years ago have had profound effects on meals and manners, which are never static. Modern dining represents a hybridization of both services, it is eclectic and creative. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Moreover the great flexibility provided by the recent revolution in cooking technology, for example cooking sous vide and the steam oven permit an endless expansion of cuisine.


Adria, Ferran. “A day at El Bulli: An insight into the ideas, methods and creativity of Feran Adria” Phaidon Press Ltd. London, New York. 2008.

Aron, Jean Paul. “The art of eating in France in France:Manners and menus in the 19th century” Translated by NinaRootes. {electronic resource} Owen. London 1975.

Bromfield, Andrea. “Food and Cooking in Victorian England: A History, Victorian Life and Times”. Prarger Publishers. Westport, Conn. 2007.

Edwardian Promenade. “Setting the table” Accessed 10/05/2009.

Ferguson, Priscilla Parkhurst. “Accounting for Taste”. University of Chicago Press. Chicago. 2004.

Flandrin, Jean-Louis. “Arranging the Meal: A History of Table Service in France” University of California Press. Berkeley. 2007.

Flandrin, Jean-Louis. “Innovation from the revolution to world war 1” {Electronic resource} University of California Press. Berkley, California; London. c2007.

Goody, Jack. “Cooking, cuisine and class: a study in comparative sociology {electronic resource} Cambridge University Press. Cambridge (Cambridgeshire) New York.. 1982.

Hertzmann, Peter.”Service a la francaise” Accessed06/05/2009.

Kaufman Cathy K. “Structuring the meal: the revolution of the service a la russe {electronic resource} in “Meal: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2001” ed Harlan Walker. Blackawton, Devon: Prospect Books. 2002.

Kirwan, A.V. “Host and Guest: A Book about Dinners, Wines and Desserts” Bell and Daldy. London 1864.

Kubilius, Kerry. “Dining a la russe:Mealtimeservice in Russia inspired the French to change their style” Accessed 06/05/2009.

Kump, Peter. “How Cooks Became Chefs: A Brief History" Accessed 10/05/2009.

Lucroft, Fiona. “The Fine Art of Eighteenth Century Table Layouts” in “Meal: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2001” ed Harlan Walker. Blackawton, Devon: Prospect Books. 2002.

Mennell, Stephen. “All Manner of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present” Basil Blackwell Ltd. Oxford. 1985.

Ottomeyer, Hans. Service a la francaise and Service a la Russe: or the Evolution of Table between the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries” in “Food and Material Culture, eds Martin R Sharer and Alexander Fenton. Tuckwell Press. East Lothian. 1998.

Revel Jean-Francois. “Culture and Cuisine: A Journey through the History of food” A Da Capo Paperback. Doubleday & Co Inc. New York. 1982.

Spang, Rebecca L. “The invention of the restaurant: Paris and modern gastronomic culture” Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusets and London, England. 2000.

Thompson, Sir Henry. “Food and Feeding” Frederick Warne and Co. London. 1901
Tickletooth, Tabitha. “The Dinner Question” Routledge, Warne and Routledge. , 1860 Facsimile Edition Prospect Books. Blackawton. 1999

Unknown. “service a la francaise et service a la russe” Summary by miruku. May 29 2007.à -la-française- Accessed 06/05/2009

Wikepidea. Service a la russe.Ã _la_russe Accessed 06/05/2009


Anna said...

Quick correction: Ferran has a double 'r' (and Adrià an accent if you're being picky)

Elliot and Sandra said...

Hi Anna, Tx for that. I'll correct the spelling straight away.
I don't know how to get those cute little squiggles, umlauts acute's circumflexes etc. on my computer. They only show up accidentally when I copy things across from other places.

Anna said...

No worries - sorry, I hope it didn't seem rude to leave a comment correcting spelling! Very interesting article, I was completely unaware that our current system stems from Russia.

Accents etc can be really tricky to get on PCs. There's a good guide here: - but it either requires typing in four digit codes, or changing your keyboard settings.

I hear the gastonomy course is due to be wound up soon - very sad news.

Elliot and Sandra said...

Hi Anna,
Where do you hear these things? Your right about the gastronomy masters - there will be no further intakes for the time being. I think there might be a 2 year restriction wrt intellectual property but after that I suspect Adelaide Uni will develop a new course. Meantime I hear that Cordon Bleu is negotiating with another Uni so there might soon be 2 courses available. Re squiggles we'll download the program and see if we can improve things there! Tx.