Detailed descriptions of the styles which were once known as French- or Russian- or British- Service.
Some waiters I talked with recently say they usually turn and burn forty and more customers per shift…
I start wondering when I go to a restaurant and find out the waiter does not know much about the menu, and the different meat cuts, he barely knows from which animal they are. I am very little impressed when the waiter does not have a clue if the fish served was caught in fresh water or salt water, was farm-raised or in the wild. I am not fascinated when I get the answer, “I think they are the ones from a jar!” In reply to my question, “What types of oysters do you serve tonight?”
I often think today’s waiters have it much easier, than the generations before them. They have more time to be attentive to their guests’ needs. Very little is table side. But then again I am used to ten to twenty customers a shift. Some waiters I talked with recently say they usually turn and burn forty and more customers per shift. “I am too busy with feeding mouths en mass” and “I have barely time to go to the bathroom. Personal touches? F… forget it!” are typical answers.
Still I feel strongly that a waiter should be able to describe all menu items and a good part of the wine-list. It is not essential but good to know that there was a time when all food was served on platters. At one time, there used to be also three distinct different styles of service in European restaurants:
If the meat was precut in the kitchen and than rearranged on the platter, such was RUSSIAN SERVICE. Experienced chefs precut racks of venison, but put the meat back onto the bones so it looked like a whole rack. A whole piglet was carved in the kitchen but put back together so it could be shown as a whole in one piece. The chefs portioned a goose in the kitchen but carefully served on a platter looking like a whole one. The same was done with a whole fillet of beef or a whole fish. If it was filleted and put back onto the platter so it looked like a whole, all done in the kitchen prior to serving, we called it RUSSIAN SERVICE. The cooks always did a nicer job to carve and garnish platters, than most waiters. For banquets this was the preferred way and it allowed a speedy service without rechauds straight from the platter onto the patron’s plates.
This the RUSSIAN SERVICE, I was told had been the typical way how they served food at the Czar’s table and at all major functions in St. Petersburg. However I remember my teachers saying, that Russian service came actually from Constantinople but only reached its fame under the Czar and during his famous banquets.
In contrast to the before mentioned way to serve food, the FRENCH SERVICE was much table-side-work. The food cooked to perfection and garnished with much care was brought on show platters to the guest. Most of the carving and portioning were done in front of the guest. Such still includes the skillful cutting of a whole fillet a la Wellington in front of the guest. The carving of an entrecote double at a table is also typical for FRENCH SERVICE, so are the cooking and flaming of a steak Diana at the patron’s table. It used to be that waiters took whole racks of venison of the bone in front of the guest and sliced them with the customers looking on. Whole ducks “Canard a la press” were typical for the best of the best French restaurants. Not only sole, but bigger fishes like salmon and halibut were filleted in front of a group of diners. Often the waiter brought the fresh caught fish for the customers inspection to the table. The guests were able to admire the freshness, before we cooked and served it. Pepper steaks too were done at the table. Waiters made crepes for Crepe Suzette at the table. All these examples are FRENCH SERVICE. One may ask does FRENCH SERVICE have anything to do with French restaurants. It used to, it is not anymore. Cooking, serving and eating habits have gone through many changes. The styles have changed too.
Nowadays it is not uncommon for a restaurant to be truly international, but be called whatever the owner wants to call it (see also New California under Starters).
There used to be another type the BRITISH SERVICE, by which big platters and tureens were placed onto the table in front of the guest. After initially being assisted by the waiters, these guests helped themselves. Another most likely British invention is still known as BUTLER style, that’s when canapés and other hors d’oeuvres are placed in the hands of servers who offer these to the guests as they pass by.
A word of caution should be said about the styles of service and also the origin of so-called regional food service. The royal families in Europe were all related, at times they gathered, if they did not fight each other. The rules for each country were made by their lordships. The British or/and the German House of Hanover carved meat the French way at the table, so did the Czar’s family in Russia, and they called it whatever they wanted to call it, especially while at war with France.
The same is true for many recipes: the Royal houses during peace time traded with each other. They shared spices, they used the same seeds for vegetables and they bought tree and vine cuttings for fruit from international traders like the Hanse. They copied recipes and what sounded good to one royal family was often adopted by others too.
What made regional food in the past really regional food was the local availability, the limited storage due to climate and area and the ability, or the lack of, to preserve certain ingredients for the daily meal. Food processing used to be very limited. The common ways to preserve food was drying, smoke curing and drying, pickling, salting and drying. Frozen fish or meat was a luxury of a few northern countries, where ice was available. Today we have many methods to preserve perishable food including canning, drying or dehydration, freezing or freeze drying, fermentation or pickling, and irradiation. Regional food nowadays is food prepared in the region but often nobody knows where it was grown and harvested.