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Learn the basics of setting your dinner table with these helpful tips from The Marilyn Denis Show's Charles the Butler.
While fashion in table settings has changed over the centuries, affecting the flatware, glassware and china we use, the method of setting a table remains exactly the same.
This is the basic method I recommend:
1. Set just one place setting first. Don't try to set the entire table at once as there will only be more to undo if you don't like how it looks. Make sure the placement is correct and that you are happy with it.
2. Next, take the rest of the chargers or main course plates and place them around the table where you want to position all the other place settings. Keep the spacing between settings equidistant. Once they are properly positioned, organize utensils and glassware around them.
3. Check for symmetry. Why do we care so much about this? Because the human eye loves symmetry. When things are not symmetrical our eye sees imperfection. Use the butler stick (a specialized yard stick designed for precise place settings) for this!
The North American place setting
In this table setting, the glasses form a diamond shape above the cutlery, with the first glass placed directly above the main course knife (inside, right). The dessert spoon and the fork are at the top of the plate, and above them is the place card. Guests use the cutlery from the outside moving in. This place setting starts with a soup course (spoon, outside right), moves on to a salad (fork, outside left), a fish course (middle fork and knife) and a meat course (inside fork and knife).
The Asian place setting
In Asia, unlike the Western world, there is no standard for formal place settings at tables. In fact, the focus is on the food rather than the place setting. The diagram shows a typical place setting, but it can easily be changed to suit your needs without making any errors of etiquette.
Using a butler's stick
One of the first rules of formal table setting is the 24-inch rule. This refers to the ideal amount of space from the centre of one plate to the centre of the next plate, allowing each guest plenty of elbow room. You may need to decrease the distance if your table is not large enough to allow 24 inches between settings.
A trend in Asian table settings is to provide two sets of chopsticks: an inner set for personal use, and the outer set to be used by guests when helping themselves to communal food.
The ideal distance from the back of a chair to the edge of the table is also 24 inches. This allows guests to sit comfortably. A good butler will use his or her butler stick to take these two measurements.
Today, few people use butler sticks to set their daily dinner tables, and to be truthful, even the contemporary butler doesn't necessarily use the tool every day. But when there is a special occasion—such as an important family birthday or anniversary—the butler stick can be of use.
This is how a professional butler would set the dining table with a butler stick:
Align the bottom of the butler stick with the edge of the table. The baseline for a place setting should be about one inch from the edge of the table—the width of the butler stick.
Align all the cutlery, the plate and the napkin to touch the top of the butler stick. This will create the perfect straight edge for your place setting. The plate should be centred at the 0, the centre of the butler stick.
Ideally, place the first knife 1 to 1.5 inches away from the plate. Continue using this same metric for the rest of the cutlery so that it is all equidistant. You may choose to reduce the amount of space between items of cutlery if your table space is limited. What's important is to keep everything consistent.
As you move around the table creating each place setting, use the same measurements.
To help achieve a beautiful place setting, strive for accuracy, and horizontal and vertical symmetry.
Excerpted from The Pocket Butler: A Compact Guide to Modern Manners, Business Etiquette and Everyday Entertaining by Charles MacPherson. Copyright © 2015 Charles MacPherson. Illustrations courtesy of Charles MacPherson Academy Inc. Published by Appetite by Random House, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.