Fork on the left, knife on the right, water on the … whichever seems closest?
“There’s so many times I’m at a round table, but it’s set for 10, so you’re sitting on top of one another,” Ben Fileccia recounted at the Four Seasons on a recent afternoon. “And it’s like, ‘Whose plate is this?’ Or ‘where’s my water glass?’”
Read the table from left to right and think of BMW, proclaimed Fileccia, the director of operations and strategy for the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodgings Association. “Bread, meal, water.”
Place-setting anatomy, good manners, and dining decorum were the order of the day inside this 59th-floor conference room, where Fileccia and Pyramid Club private events director Angie Gruver addressed high school students over the course of an impeccably presented three-course meal. The event was part of a PRLA program that partners with the Philadelphia School District to teach high school culinary students the etiquette of a business lunch.
“Nowadays, kids are so tied up in this,” Gruver told me beforehand, gesturing to her smartphone. “The reality is, you start getting into the business world or even culinary world and you’re going to need to know these things.”
When invited to attend, I questioned whether I knew the principles of business-lunch etiquette. And so I found myself observing as 10 juniors and seniors from Ben Franklin High School filed into the taupe-on-taupe room that overlooks Logan Square and points north. “Germantown over here?” senior Massie Campfield asked, pointing into the distance. Gruver announced there would be a no-cellphone policy, so they should take photos now, then put them away.
The students, in varying degrees of dressed-up, hung up their coats and took seats at the table, replete with salt-and-pepper shakers, oblong bread baskets, votive candles, and succulent-studded terrariums. Servers in white jackets circulated, taking orders for lemonade, iced tea, and Arnold Palmers.
Menus were tucked into folded napkins, nested on top of each plate — or what I had confused for a plate.
“This is a charger, so they’ll probably come and take them away,” Fileccia explained. “But just take the napkin off and put it on your lap.”
As the kids smoothed the linens on their laps, Fileccia discoursed on napkins. “I’m fascinated with them. I did all these YouTube videos about how to fold a napkin. They came in and videotaped me for hours folding … ‘now do a peacock, now do a swan.’”
The most frequent napkin question he gets, however, is what to do with it when you get up to go to the restroom. “You just fold it and put it to the left of your plate. If you have arms on your chair, put it on the arm — but a lot of places don’t have arms on chairs because they want to get as many people as possible.”
With everyone settled, Gruver and Fileccia passed along the order to fire up lunch. They polled the room to see if any wanted to be chefs. One boy, Malcolm Waugh, shyly raised his hand. Any specialties, Gruver asked. “Not yet,” he replied, shaking his head.
Culinary education specialist Michele Eagan chimed in to say the students had been displaced from their usual space this school year, due to asbestos. “We’re working on getting them back in there, in their kitchen, so they can get back to cooking.”
Servers glided into the room with bowls of wild mushroom soup enriched with an almond milk-chestnut velouté, setting them down in unison.
The students longingly eyed up the bread baskets, precariously placed in the faraway center of the conference-room table. Would it be better to unceremoniously stretch across, or remain politely seated and hungry? They stayed put.
Finally, Fileccia reached out and snagged one. “There’s few things you can eat with your hands when you go out. Bread is definitely, obviously, one of them,” he clarified, slicing into a pat of butter. “When you eat bread in a professional setting, you would break off a little piece with your hand, put a little butter on it.”
The kids — uncharacteristically quiet, according to teacher Keith Pretlow — followed suit. The only sounds were of knives scraping butter plates and spoons clinking as they stirred iced tea. The beige soup was met with reluctance. (Its mild reception was validated later, when Gruver cautioned against attending a business event hungry. “Eat a little something beforehand,” she advised. “You’re there to network and meet people.”)
“When you get to the bottom, they say you can tilt your bowl to get all the soup,” Fileccia said. Alas, the maneuver was unnecessary. The servers eventually took the cue to clear.
As the bowls were whisked away, Fileccia seized the opportunity to ask banquet captain Richard Ffrench how servers intuit when diners are done. “Is there any surefire way to tell?’” Fileccia asked.
Ffrench explained his team serves the table, not the individual; no bowl is cleared before every diner is done. “And just to verify, we will normally ask the guest … ‘Pardon me, are we still enjoying soup?’ But typically, just put your silverware like this,” he added, leaning the spoon against the rim of the bowl.
That led to a tangent on keeping silverware off the tablecloth once it’s been used, and then onto the acceptability of elbows on the table. No leaning into the food, but “you can rest your forearms” on the table, especially after dessert, he allowed.
Imminently approachable grilled chicken was up next, to much delight. And perhaps it was the vivid color of the saffron couscous that came with it or the brief reprieve from the audience’s shy silence, but Gruver relented on her no-cellphone policy. The kids obligingly took them out, snapped their food pics, then stowed them away again. They cut the chicken — one bite at a time — and ate, carefully, quietly, using their knives to coax pearls of couscous onto their forks.
As etiquette talking points wore thin, the conversation veered off-topic: the best views in Philadelphia dining, Halloween at Eastern State Penitentiary, the merits of showing up early for meetings, social media. To pass time between courses, Fileccia and Gruver asked trivia questions to review their lessons, handing out culinary-themed prizes.
Dessert drew near, and the fleet of servers reappeared to take orders for coffee and tea. (Tea was a huge hit — once the students discovered it came in an individual pot and little jars of honey, several more orders were placed.) Fileccia and Gruver asked Pretlow to help them distribute the surprise business cards they had made up for the students. “Rule of thumb,” Fileccia said, “if anybody ever gives you a business card, return by giving them a business card back.”
When fairy tale-esque lemon meringue tarts arrived, the custard obscured by bruleed meringue swirls adorned with blue and yellow flowers, the students’ eyes widened. “Can I take a picture?” Naomi Clement asked. Stunning as it was, I asked Gruver if I could photograph hers.
Moments later, Ffrench reappeared with a tart just for me. I ate it, to be polite.