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Mr. Manners: The Dining Table—“It’s More Than Tres Chic, It's Cuatro Chic"

About 15 years ago, Margie and I decided to spend the holidays in the Philippines, and opted to not travel. We wanted something easy, and thought a beach vacation was in order.

Good thing, I was introduced to Ditchay Roxas and her longtime better half Philippe Girardeau, who lived on this idyllic island beachfront property off Port Barton in San Vicente, Palawan. To get there, we drove from Puerto Princesa—a good three hours through great roads—and took a speedboat to the island.

This was Christmas Eve, just a few hours before sundown, and Pepe the boatman was revving through the waves so we could make it in time for the Eve. The first 20 minutes were a ride dreams are made of. The sun was setting with gentle waves hitting our bodies that were hoping for that much needed rest.

But all that changed when we made it out of the bay and into the open sea. The China Sea. The lapping water turned to rumble, and as I decided to take a look back, the waves were wall high. I thought, “Holy s**t, is this death knocking?” Pepe happily said, “Huwag kayong mag-alala, naka-speed boat tayo, kasi kung tumaob, madali na lang itagilid.” So much for comforting words.

Margie always said I left out tiny details in our trips. This same thing happened when we went to Siargao long before it was chic. We were motoring across the straits in open water in a small banca, while being pummeled by rain. This time it was the eerie darkness that made us fear. After an hour or so, we saw the entrance to the cove that would be our home.

Ditchay and Philippe leased 11 hectares of Boayan Island, and have been there over 20 years in their tres chic Robinson Crusoe land.

We had been drenched, with nerves frayed. As we got to the shore, Margie’s first instinct was to light a cigarette, and me, grab a cold beer. We got off the boat, bags and boxes of food in tow. There was no light on the island, except from lamps and solar-powered bulbs. It was very, very laid-back that you could, in fact, traipse along the beach in your birthday suit.

The meals in Boayan were always a treat. Despite the rustic vibe and stripped-off setting, lo and behold, the table was set up with bone china, crystal, and silverware. Philippe made sure the sense of civility remained despite the environs.

Freshly baked bread, homemade jams, and a coffee service in silver woke us up. Lunches with a chilled French white wine, alongside freshly caught fish, were sublime. Dinners were seemingly august with a tinkle here. We had meals with freshly harvested arugula from the island’s sustainable farm—yes, in the middle of nowhere. I easily gained 10 pounds in those 10 days. Did I mention croque monsieur in the middle of an empty beach and an island?

The idea of living simply—a wooden home with no lights, yet a widescreen of a gentle sea and the Dolby digital sound of waves and birds—is quite charming, but it is not for everyone. And, as we are in the process of accumulating, we tend to lose out on what is important.

I have drastically pared down on what I have given that I am at that stage of looking at what is important. I often say, I am not a saint, and I have my share of detractors. I continue to reach out to ask for forgiveness.

When I almost had a stroke two years ago, I began a list of people I just want to make amends with. But either by choice or by circumstance, I face the reality that not everyone wants to move on, and no matter what I do, it will never be right. The best thing to do is to just discern the right path. Philippe would say, in his Parisian accent, “Pouf, merde, let’s have a glass of wine!”

Philippe—who passed away in Paris, and was a very good friend to Margie and I—lived a charmed life. On a visit to Paris years ago, we stayed with the couple and their daughter Amelie, who is now a scientist, at their country home in Corbeville. Philippe’s father was a hotshot inventor for Marconi, and they had a beautiful chateaux outside Paris. We spent the weekend with them at the Pool House, a “modest” home that was facing the swimming pool and the tennis court. This wasn’t the chateaux apparently. The home was a short walk to what a chateux would look like, just out of a book of knights and ladies of the court. The chateaux was sold to a Japanese company that used it as a vacation home. This home was complete with a ballroom and a huge dining room with crystal chandeliers. For fashion historians, French designer Jacques Fath of Green Water fame once owned the entire estate with his remains still in the meadow under a walnut tree.

Over the nights we spent at Boayan and in Corbeville, Philippe regaled us with stories of dinners served under the lights of the dining room at chateaux, and of soirees at their apartment at Avenue Foch. These reminded me of the movie Gosford Park as their household staff prepared the table, measured the spacing, and kept the silver polished.

All that, we did on a rustic table, with crisp linens and exquisite glassware, while facing the beach in Palawan—a reminder of courtliness despite the Spartan surroundings.

Philippe and Ditchay have inspired me to live graciously in very different times. I always feel that, no matter what you dine, it is important to set the table. The table setting always calms you down, and gives you a level of urbanity. The table is where conversations are started and tales of family are told. The table will always be central part of the home.

Be it at your home or at a fancy dinner (the types that we see less and less), here are a few thoughts on dining. But remember, there is more to life than using the right fork or knowing where the plates should be.

 

Tablescaping begins at home.

I like to set the table with a large dining plate, preferably without a band, since we are Asians and our food do not behave in continental plates. I always have the spoon and knife on the right side and the fork on the left. You may put a dessert fork on top of the plate, facing left. Napkin placement is a preference; at home, we put a crisp linen napkin (made by my niece Kyla of Live the Linen Dream) on top of the plate. I also like to use a napkin ring.

 

 

Deciding which knife, fork, or spoon to use is made easier by the outside-in rule: use utensils on the outside first then work your way inward.

If you are at your Lola’s, it is more likely for soup to be served from a tureen, so begin with a soup spoon. Unless you decide to drink soup and not put any rice into it like a sinigang, make sure you try to avoid using a spoon to shove food into your mouth. And please, please, hold the cutlery by the edges, don’t grip the spoon like a bike, and for God’s sake, don’t bite the spoon!

When you don’t know what to do, just watch your host. Chances are there are other people in the room who wouldn’t know which fork or knife to use. Although we predominantly use spoons and forks, we do so because it is very Asian. I have been to a lot of formal dining restaurants in the region where the cutlery is sans knives. But they are beautiful pieces just the same. Whatever it is, please don’t bite the spoon (that’s for emphasis)!

There are a myriad of utensils for different entrées. The Italians have a knife just to remove roasted bone marrow. But don’t fret, dinners these days aren’t as elaborate as before. A good read of the menu will help you size up your battle plan. Remember, outside-in!

As we continue the setting, your water glass is the one above the knife in your place setting and your bread plate is to the left.

Now, here is a tip I picked up online: To remember which bread plate belongs to you and if the glass in front of you belongs to you or your seatmate, use “b” and “d”. Touch the index finger on your right hand to your right thumb. Touch the index finger on your left hand to your left thumb. The “b” formed by your left hand is for” bread” (your bread plate is always at the left of your place setting). The “d” formed by your right hand is for “drink” (your drinking glasses are always at the right of your place setting).

 

 

Use a napkin and place it on your lap even if it’s paper.

Place the napkin on your lap even if you are eating at a fast food joint, using plastic cubiertos, immediately upon seating.

 

The napkin. Unfold your napkin in one smooth motion without "snapping" or "shaking" it open. You are not a magician, and hopefully will not make a relleno appear in one fell swoop.  Lay it on your lap, and do not tuck the napkin into your collar. On the plane, there is button hole to prevent food to stain your shirt. That’s for turbulence!

Except if a fight is going on, you shouldn’t find any other use for the napkin during the dinner (unless your ex shows up to settle a score). Use the napkin to blot out what you may have left on your lips. This is not a Good Morning towel, and is not meant to be used to wipe your face.

Napkin rings, if used, should be put ring above your setting. After dinner, pull the used napkin into the ring and set to the side. If not used, lightly fold it, and leave it on your left, or on your setting after coffee service.

 

Eat without being a boor.

Let’s begin by not stuffing your face. The fork, when used, is best since it can’t take much. The spoon, we all use it in our kick back state—it is a spoon, not at shovel.  Let’s start with this: moderate portion sizing, please.

 

 

Always taste your food before seasoning it. Doing so honors the culinary efforts of your host and suggests restraint. From a practical perspective, the food may be seasoned to your taste as it is served to you. How comfortable will you be if in seasoning the food before tasting it, you make a dish too salty or overly peppered? Table etiquette and manners also help us.

 

Eat in small bites. In my readings, let me quote George Washington on his views on eating:

 

"Put not another bit into your mouth till the former be swallowed. Let not your morsels be too big for the jowls."

 

When we list pointers like this, it is just about making people comfortable. Everyone is on the same page. Imagine how you would feel if you were dining with cavemen. Their convention is how it comes to pass. Think Mr. Bean.

Food, in general, and meat, in particular, should be cut up into bite size pieces as they are eaten. Only meals for children are cut all at once. Ensure you use fork and knife and not just your fork, no matter what others do. 

Whether you are using an American style of eating (fork in left hand, knife in the right, which are switched after the food is cut) or a Continental one (no switching), one should never, ever place so much food in one’s mouth. You must not chew with your mouth open.

Don’t hunch over your plate nor use your fingers to move food around the plate (unless dining in a culture where eating with one’s hands is permissible).

No matter how finger-friendly the meal is, it pays to be able to eat it with silverware. Well, I can’t imagine doing that to chicharon. But you know what I mean. Boodle fights excluded.

Do not gesticulate with your utensils, it is considered impolite.

 

Bread is buttered, but not like having it for merienda. 

Just cut it to small pieces, butter and nibble a little at a time. If you are having one of those meals where it would be perfect to dunk the bread, do so a piece at a time.  

 

The other conventions are quite normal. No loud noises unless you are slopping up ramen in Japan. Keep the elbows off the table. Mind the shoulders in the dining table (well, that’s for me, I tend to extend my reach by virtue of size). Don’t be afraid to ask, it isn’t a faux pas.  

While putting this together, I missed Philippe and Ditchay. I miss the funny conversations about being French, the humor of the Filipino, and the need to keep to a certain norm no matter how tenuous the situation can be. Every day, in the sun-kissed island of Boayan amidst the blue waters, we sat and ate divinely. I picked up a silver butter knife, spread some butter on a piece of bread, and picked up a slice of jambon. I thought out loud, tres chic? No, Philippe would say, bonne! No, no, no, cuatro chic. And we sipped our wine and watched the sun go down.

Remember, all that is chic need not be expensive, it’s simply about enjoying the best ways given the circumstance.