As near as I can tell, there is no such thing as a “French Serving Technique”. What I’m thinking of is actually called “silver service,” which, funny enough, is called “English service” if you are in France. Despite, the egregious misnomer, I’m going to continue to refer to this particular kind of service as the “French Serving Technique,” because that’s what we called it in the era of the story I’m about to tell.*
Okay, for those of you who didn’t watch the video, French Serving Technique is a tableside service technique wherein the waiter plates the food using an oversized matching spoon and fork, both held in the same hand, much the way one would hold spoons to play them (though not precisely).
Okay, I bet you watched at least a little of that video, even though it’s only tangentially related to this story. Right, the story…
A few years back (2002 to be precise), I was living in India when Thanksgiving rolled around. For some reason, holidays like Thanksgiving mean a heck of a lot more when you are living in India and don’t have much in the way of family and friends around you. With that in mind, I did have one friend, and since he was both Indian and American, I thought he’d be the perfect person with whom to spend the holiday. We talked, and he had a great idea for a restaurant, so we agreed: Chinese food.
There are a number of reasons we chose Chinese. First, we decided that under no circumstances were we to have Indian food. Second, American food would only be available in form of hamburgers or something equally unappealing. Mostly, though, I think we saw this as an opportunity to be ironic. In those days, unlike today, being ironic was all the rage.
I actually forget the name of the place, but it was in a big hotel–very fancy–a hotel that had a number of restaurants inside, and my friend had eaten there many times in life. He grew up in the city and this was a common destination for fancy dinners for his family. We arrived at the restaurant with the same thought in mind: duck. Duck would be a suitable substitute for turkey at our Thanksgiving feast. In addition to the fowl, the only other prerequisite for making this Thanksgiving was to order way too much food.
We succeeded at both of these, ordering dumplings to start, and Peking duck, and another kind of duck, and a whole mess of other dishes. My dinner companion even order a margarita, as unadvisable as it would seem to have a Mexican drink at a Chinese restaurant in southern India. We were one of a very few tables occupied on this Thursday evening, which meant that three or four servers were available at all times to hover near our table, refilling our water and watching our every move. It was a bit disconcerting, but neither of us felt any need at the time to shoo anybody away. After all, they were just doing their jobs.
When the dumplings arrived, one of the younger waiters approached the table with utensils in hand. (Now’s the time that you would really benefit from having watched that British gentleman displaying the French Serving Technique.) He had a steaming pot of dumplings in one hand, and the spoon and fork in the other. He was a little shaky, but he very carefully reached into the pot and picked up a dumpling–
–and dropped it back in the pot. So, again, he reached in and took hold of one of the dumplings–but this time it had gotten stuck to another dumpling, so he tried to shake the first one free–and dropped the whole thing back in the pot.
Sweat was forming on his brow. Well, his and mine. I felt bad for the poor kid. He had three or four other waiters watching, as well as the two of us, and our plates were still empty, five solid minutes after our food had “arrived.” Eventually, with some struggle, he managed to get one dumpling apiece onto mine and my friend’s plates, and we told him that we were good–he could skedaddle.
We ate, serving ourselves subsequent dumplings, discussing the irony of Thanksgiving, with it’s misleading stories about “Indians,” and the double irony of us actually being in India and celebrating this holiday. My head in spinning just thinking about it. I’d break it down for you, but I’m as likely to break down as anything else. Plus, we have to get back to the French Serving Technique.
Soon, the duck arrived. It was sliced into 1/4 inch pieces and neatly arranged on a large platter. The same young waiter pushed the cart to the side of the table, moved a few sauces into the center of our table, and reached for his spoon and fork. We noted the problem right away: he could barely figure out how to hold the spoon in one hand, let alone the fork. It woul have been entirely valid for him to hold each utensil in one hand, and serve the duck from the cart. There would have been no drippy mess and we would have eaten our meal warm. But our friend was determined, and God bless him for that. He hoisted the platter in one hand, and began grappling uselessly with the utensils in the other. For a moment, he would succeed in picking up a piece of duck, but his hold would be so precarious that by the time got it ready to put on the plate, he’d drop it. After several unsuccessful attempts, he resorted to nudging the meat off the tray and onto the plate. His held lowered, he replaced the platter on the cart and left.
We tried not to laugh at the poor kid. My friend had offered to let us serve ourselves and only at the very end did he agree. When he finally left, we let ourselves go, laughing and having a good time. The duck was cold, his margarita had too much triple sec, and our food was not the best. But what could we have expected? We were having a great time, despite all of the pitfalls. I had no true complaints.
When it came time for our check, my friend insisted on paying. We were in his hometown, and I was the guest. The maître d’ brought the check along with a “rate your experience” survey. First, my friend filled out the “how many times have you eaten here question?” by circling 50+ since he had been coming to the restaurant since he was a small boy. And be an honest sort, he filled out the rest quite candidly, circling “fine” under most categories. “Fine,” to him, was just that. It was fine, no problem, what was expected. He did not mean it as a bad thing. Of course, the maître d’ didn’t see it that way. When we were ready to leave, he came rushing out, “Mr. K! Mr. K!” We turned and stopped.
“Mr. K! I’m sorry you were disappointed with your meal. Can we speak?”
“Sure. It was fine. No problems.”
“What was the matter?”
“Well, the margarita had too much triple sec, and the duck was cold, but it’s not a problem…”
“Oh, I see. What about your service? What was wrong with your service?”
The correct answer here is: “Nothing. The service was great.” Truly, the staff was very attentive and tried very hard. They were a little hover-y, but that’s the way it is in India. I don’t think either of us actually had any gripes. Here’s what my friend actually said:
“The French Serving Technique could have been better.”
I couldn’t help myself. I burst out laughing right there, right in front of the hotel, right in the maître d’s face. I felt horrible, but it was just too funny. My friend started laughing too, and we both had to walk away to not embarrass ourselves or the restaurant any more. We laughed for hours more. Tears streamed from my face. “The French Serving Technique could have better?” Who is that particular about their service? To this day, only the “sluck duck” incident* has been accompanied with as much public laughter.
*Incidentally, another story involving duck. Duck is funny, I suppose…
The day after Thanksgiving, I called my friend. All I had to say was “French Serving Technique” and he lost it. Later that day, two dozen roses arrived at his home, along with a note of apology and a promise to be better next time. We never did go back together and take advantage of that promise, but I will always have the memory of Mr. K. telling the maître d’ of this super fancy restaurant that his French Serving Technique could be better. I think I will use this in every survey from now forth, no matter how irrelevant. Since “French Serving Technique” doesn’t actually exist, I’m sure to invite some very interesting reactions. I’m also open to suggestions as to what that particular technique could be, but please do keep it clean.