The method of service in restaurants and at formal dinners in France is not service à la française — service in the French-style. At least not anymore. It was called service à la française 150 years ago, but in the middle of the 19th century the style of service changed to the Russian-style — service à la russe. Going out to dinner was quite different 150 years ago.
Service à la française evolved over time from the method of service used in the Middle Ages by royalty and the nobility. During that period, the only cutlery supplied the diner was a spoon. All the guests, at least each male guest, would bring his own knife, actually a dagger. Female guests would be served by men sitting nearby. The edge of the blade was used to cut pieces of meat off a joint and the pointed end of the knife was used to spear the pieces. Forks hadn’t arrived yet from Italy and fingers were the preferred method of transporting food from a bowl to the mouth. Bowls and platters would be used for serving, but each dinner had a hollowed-out piece of hard, brown bread, a trencheoir, as his or her individual plate. The various courses were brought to the diners in large bowls or platters which served two or more guests. Everybody was not served the same food. What each diner was served, as well as where each guest sat, was a function of his or her relative station in life. The choicer morsels, the rarer ingredients, and the better quality serving bowls went to those diners higher up the pecking order.
As culinary habit and etiquette in France changed from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, multiple pieces of silverware replaced fingers and multiple pieces of fine porcelain replaced hard bread. But one aspect remained the same, the diner’s position in life was still reflected at the table both in placement and in food.
The typical formal dinner in the 19th century, whether enjoyed by the rich or the growing middle class, and whether served in a home or eaten in a restaurant, consisted of three courses, sometimes described as premier service, second service, and troisième service. Up until the 18th century it was still common, as in the Middle Ages, for sweets to be served as part of all three courses, but by the 19th century, the third course was closer to the modern concept of dessert.
The first course would commence with one or more soups. When these were removed, a couple of large plates of roasted or stewed meats, poultry, or fish, called relevés, were presented. These were accompanied by a series of entrées — smaller dishes of meat, poultry, or seafood — plus some entremets, small sweet or savory preparations. (In the Middle Ages, an entremet was entertainment presented between the mets, French for items “placed” before the diner. By the 18th century, these sweet and/or lighter dishes were now intended to provide a break between the larger heavier dishes of the course.) For larger meals, hors d’œuvres were place around the main dishes. Hors d’œuvres, literally “outside (the) work,” were not served before the meal as they are today, but around the main body of the meal.
The second course had the largest dishes of the meal, accompanied by vegetables, salads, and more sweet and savory entremets. By the 19th century, this course would contain the pièce de résistance, the center of the meal. The term apparently comes from the concept that diners had to resist eating too much of the first course in order to save room for this main dish. Also, this was not just a simple roast placed on a platter but an entire architectural construction of a combination of meats or seafood with a multitude of garnishes.
The third and final course was closest to the modern concept of dessert consisting of cheeses, pastries, and fruit. It could also include meat pâtés and other savory preparations. In the 18th century, this course bore more similarity to the earlier courses in that it would be centered on savory dishes with some sweet ones interspersed. The French word dessert evolved from desservir, meaning to “to remove what has been served, to clear (the table).” Also, much like today, the third service was prepared not in the kitchen but in the office, or pastry kitchen.
For all three courses, the individual dishes are placed in the center of the table in a symmetrical pattern with the principal dishes in the center and lesser dishes arranged around the center. Thus the dishes were arranged by size and symmetry. The arrangement was the responsibility of the maître d’hôtel. As the number of guests increases, the amount of each dish is not increased, but the number of dishes is. That is, the variety of dishes in the service increases with the number of guests. The 1748 edition of François Massialot’s Le nouveau cuisinier royal et bourgeois ou cuisine moderne presents sample menus for a variety of possible dinner parties. In his examples, it is not until the party reaches a size of 30 to 35 guests before he begins to double up some of the dishes.
The following is Massialot’s example of a simple dinner for six to eight diners along with the layout of the service plates on the table. Place your cursor over the menu to view a translation.
As the number of diners, and thus the number of dishes, grows, the likelihood of each diner being able to taste every dish diminishes. Table etiquette at the time dictated that any diner could ask for any dish to be passed to him or her. After the diner sampled from the dish, it would be returned to its original position on the table. It is not clear whether the diners ever actually passed the dishes to each other, or whether the act was carried out by what today would be referred to as waiters, but in those days they could be the host’s servants or the diner’s footmen. Etiquette dictated that while it was acceptable to obtain one or two dishes that were outside a diner’s reach, the diner should also not make a nuisance filling his plate with morsels that required excessive passing of plates. Besides being set with dishes, the table arrangement also included candles, salt cellars, and decorations. Each diner would also have an assortment of cutlery, plates, and glasses, depending upon need. The table may be set with multiple tablecloths so that as plates were removed at the end of each course, the soiled tablecloth could be removed revealing a clean one below.
By the mid-19th century, service à la française was becoming too burdensome, both in substance and fashion, for everyday dining. As early as the 1830s, Russian Prince Kourakin introduced to Paris society a method of service from his homeland, which the French dubbed service à la russe. Apparently Antonin Carême, arguably the finest chef of the 19th century, had observed this method when he was at the court of Tsar Alexander I in 1818, but he thought it unsuitable for his fellow countrymen. There is some evidence that the real driving force behind service à la russe was Urbain Bubois, a former chef to Prince Orloff in Russia and subsequently chef to the King of Prussia at the time he published, along with Émile Bernard, La cuisine classique: études pratiques, raisonnées et demonstratives de l’école française appliquée au service à la russe in 1864. The book begins with a three-page rationale for using service à la russe but contains sample menus for service à la française, as well. The sample menus include examples for small, intimate parties of ten up to more public banquets of 600 guests.
The main difference between service à la russe and service à la française is a matter of time and space. In service à la française, the dishes, at least in each course, are arranged spatially but presented to guests all at once. In service à la russe, the dishes are arranged temporally, i.e., served in succession, one after another. Plus the dishes are all offered to the guests by waiters, not passed by the guests. Instead of offering each guest a different assortment of dishes, everyone now is offered the same dishes throughout the meal. Also, with service à la russe, roasts are carved in the kitchen or on a sideboard, making it easier for the guests to select the portion they desire. And the food arrives at the table still warm, a problem for service à la française due to the elaborateness of its preparations.
By the last decade of the 19th century in France, service à la française is a memory and service à la russe has become de rigueur.
The illustrations displayed above are taken from an original copy of the 6th edition of Jules Gouffé’s Le livre de cuisine, published in Paris by Librarie Hachette in 1884.
© 2004, 2014 Peter Hertzmann. All rights reserved.