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

Thursday, June 04, 2009

CHATTER 21 A Sephardic Feast

There are two main cultural branches of the Jewish people - Ashkenazim, whose origins lie mainly in Europe and Russia, and Sephardi which strictly refers to those Jews whose ancestors lived on the Iberian Peninsula. They have different styles of cooking. The Askenazi lived in a cold world, a world of chicken fat, onion and garlic, cabbage, carrots and potatoes and fresh water fish. The Sephardi lived in a warm world of peppers and aubergine, courgettes and tomatoes, rice and cracked wheat, saltwater fish and olive oil.
Greg Malouf, renowned for prize winning Middle Eastern travel cookbooks, iconic Melbourne restaurant MoMo's and for the introduction of Middle East meets West fusion food, cooked up a sumptous Sephardic feast fcor several hundred people at a fund raising dinner. Served on very large tables decorated with a Middle Eastern theme

the meal began with a Mezze Entree of silk hummus, tomato, leek and cumin relish, smoky baba ganoush

and jou jou bread which wa on the tables before the guests arrived.

Either stuffed into the bread or eaten separately each mezze was mouth watering. They lasted about three minutes. Next came an atlantic salmon, tarator style.

Cooked for 15 minutes at 80 degrees the fish was lightly but perfectly cooked. a layer of tehina was then covered with parsley, walnut, a touch of corianderand chilli to produce a superb second entree. The second course was a chickpea and lentil soup with chicken threads.

A common dish but again well spiced and a joy to the palate. My waiter Walid

was constantly at hand to serve wine and fold serviettes! This was followed by the main course designed for sharing except for the individual serves of lamb tagine cooked in parchment

with dates and preserved lemon, potato, onion and other vegetables.

It was accompanied by a colourful baby cos salad with purple and white whitlof and pomegranite dressing

and a jewelled couscous with pomegranite, currants and pistachio nuts.

None of these dishes are paricularly difficult to prepare but they were distinguished by great flavour and excellent balance. Dessert of thousand layer apple cake with apple and cinnamon torte followed by walnut baklava
was very sweet and rich followed by mint tea or Turkish coffee.
All in all an outstanding meal. Many of the dishes are available at MoMo's but be aware reservations are essential.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Pitchfork (Elsternwick) 09

We came across this restaurant at 476 Glenhuntly Rd (Ph. 9528 5788) by accident last week and had a very pleasant evening. Set in a long room with a pleasant gas fire in the middle

and lit by slightly pretentious chandeliers the bustling friendly waiters convey a warm and welcoming atmosphere. The menu is International with Italian, French, Russian and North African elements. I indulged myself with an entree of fried lamb brains with a spinach and cheese pastry ($12)

which was a cut above what my mother used to give us 100 years ago. Sandra loved her house made gnocchi tossed with roasted pumpkin, red capsicum, spinach and bocconcini in a creamy garlic sauce ($14).A few thin slices of Turkish bread, toasted presented with olive oil, balsamic AND butter and olives ($3) was very nice too. For mains I had the osso bucco,

slow cooked veal on a Milanese risotto. ($26) The veal was great but the risotto lacked texture and flavour. The 300G grain fed porterhouse beer battered euro frittes garden salad and red wine sauce. ($32 though only $30 on the menu)

was initially served plonked on top of the frittes. They took them back and served them in a separate dish to keep them crisp. There was no evidence of the advertised beer batter.
The steak was cooked more than requested despite the usual assurances that it would be as ordered. Sometimes we return sometimes we don't. It was a pretty chewy piece of meat but we kept it this time. a dessert of self saucing chocolate pudding with vanilla ice cream ($12 on the menu but they charged us $10!)

was good value. Wines are very cheap. We scoffed Henkell Piccolo NV 200 ml at $6.50. there is a reasonable range by the glass of almost exclusively Australian wines. If you want anything special a $5 corkage fee is ore than fair. They have a lot of interesting dishes and despite their evident weaknesses the overall experience was good enough for us to want to give them another try.

Score: 13.25/20