The way how it used to be in fine dining, which nowadays is seldom available not even in so-called first class establishments…
The back-waiter brought the food to a service-table next to the guests’ dinner-table. Here he placed the sliver platter with hot food onto a rechaud.
SILVER PLATTERS & RECHAUDS
Before portion-controlled food became worldwide the norm, all food was loaded in the kitchen by the cooks onto large show platters. In Germany these heavy silverplated platters were appropriatly called Hotel-Silber (silver for hotel use).
In the 1960 and before good restaurants in Europe did not use plates in the kitchen. Plate warming cabinets kept plates needed for hot food at a preset temperature. Such cabinets would be found in or nearby all the guest seating areas. Many fine restaurants had three different plate storage areas; The warm plates were kept in the plate warmer, cold plates were stacked at room temperature, chilled plates as needed salad and dessert were kept in a refrigerated unit.
In the kitchen one did not use plates. The chefs created all displays on Hotel-Silber show platters, artistically garnishing the same. These platters, hot for hot food and cold for cold food, were carried to the dining rooms by the kitchen waiters often called back-waiters.
The back-waiter brought the food to a service-table next to the guests’ dinner-table. Here he placed the sliver platter with hot food onto a rechaud. Preheated plates waited to be used on another rechaud. These rechauds were food-warmers. Such were common and used everywhere, until the early to mide seventies. Rechauds were an essential for any European style restaurant around the globe.
Many of the then used rechauds were handmade, crafted from brass or copper. I remember some which had silver claw-foot legs. Some rechauds were crafted from several metals, like copper and brass, others had a rich silver filigree decor. They were beautiful to look at, but hard to clean. The heat source were candles placed inside and at times, by night’s end, the bottom of a the rechauds was filled with candle wax.
To remove the wax took much time and elbow grease, so did the cleaning and polishing of the rechauds. The labor needed to keep the silver platters clean and shining is today hard to imagine. In Germany, where I had my apprenticeship, the silver cleaning was the apprentice’s job. My superiors told me such was comparable to the daily deck-scrubbing of cadets on sailing ships, an ongoing daily chore. It was a never ending Sisyphus work. I did what I was told to do. It must have been important for I spent four hours plus, each day with silver cleaning. Yet I did never believe that it was a chore necessary to create discipline and character strength. But that was exactly what the head waiter and the manager kept on telling me.
Restaurants all over the world hastily replaced rechauds which had been in use, unchanged for over a century, with electric gadgets in the seventies. The most common new electric warmer was an alloy-plate with two handles which served as stands. The new technology, the modern style and the low cost per use of any of these revolutionary warming plates caught on fast. These all cast metal and stainless steel warming plates were stacked and heated in their special designed stainless steel electric cabinet. They were easy to clean and cheap to maintain. However these heat plates lacked the warmth of the burning candlelight and the timeless beauty of the copper and brass rechauds which they replaced.
The function of the rechaud was to keep plates and the silver platters with food warm for the guest. The food placed on a rechaud by the backwaiter stayed there till the frontwaiter or captain took over. He then presented the food to the guests. After the customer’s nod of approval, he put the platter back onto the warmer. The front waiter took the waiting plates from another rechaud, hot clean dinner plates. These were now placed in front of each guest.
The captain or frontwaiter then picked the food platter up and went ahead with serving the food, which was done from the left, without any exception. The platter itself balanced on the server’s left hand and arm. Between skin and platter, the waiter used serving towels to protect himself against the heat from the platter’s hot surface. The waiters served all food from the guest’s left, with the serving spoon and fork always in the right hand. The waiter carefully selected from the platter whatever the guest wanted on his dinner-plate.
Food was never piled high onto a plate, unless a guest requested such. Little servings were the norm. A waiter had to know how and where to place the meat, the vegetable, the potatoes and the sauces. It was common that each vegetable and meat had their own sauce. There were for instance truffle sauce for the meat, a hollandaise for the asparagus, hot bacon and lard for the string beans, and cheese and bread crumbs for the cauliflower.
Single orders came out of the kitchen on one and the same silver platter, meat, vegetable and potatoes. Still, it had to be served. For a table of four, all the individual meat or fish orders were on separate platters, but usually the cooks arranged the accompanying vegetables on just one big silver platter. At a table of four (if everyone selected a different entree) there would be five platters, on rechauds, surrounding the guests’ table, an impressive presentation.
To watch a waiter serving the food made the dinner a special affair. Picking the platter up from the rechaud the silver-platter on his left hand, the waiter’s polite “May I serve you more meat, more vegetables?” started a round of serving and pampering the guest. Done with this he offered more of the sauces, refilled wine glasses and made sure that they, his treasured guests, were well-taken care off.
There was a drawback. Restaurants were not able to hire just anybody of the street. Fast talking and being available was not sufficient to be a waiter then. Serving from a silver platter, a waiter had to be able to balance a heavy platter on his left hand. He had to be able to serve from it, while bending forward between two guests. There the platter would hover over the table while the waiter used the spoon and fork in his right hand like tongs. To pick up meat pieces, he had to have a firm grip. To be able to move delicate items like straw-potato-nests, stuffed tomatoes or asparagus spears he had to have a gentle touch. This type of service was an art in itself. To lift small pieces of garnish skillfully without destroying their appetizing appearance required practice. None of these tasks were considered a big deal by any experienced waiter. They could use spoon and fork to lift carefully and place food items onto the guest’s plate. Waiters used the spoon as a ladle to dish up some of the au-jus, or to scoop up vegetables from the platter. Little round items, such as peas, beans, berries and grapes had the tendency to fall of the spoon and land in the wrong places, like in some bosomed lady’s décolleté. Such was usually outrageous funny to watch. Some women were like stone, not reacting at all. One, she shrieked, pain and surprise in her voice, but blushed as everybody stared at her. Another woman I remember jumped up and ran to the powder room to remove whatever had rolled between her breast.
It was not always the waiter’s fault. Yet at times games were played on purpose. At one formal dinner a gentleman paid me twenty Marks to drop a chilled melon ball into the low cut dress of his table partner. I guess he thought she would allow him to retrieve it. He offered to do so, just after I dropped the half inch ball. She ignored my apology. Looking straight at the gentleman at her side, I heard her saying: “I don’t know what you think, you plan to do. There is nothing wrong, nothing what would need your concern.”
The part of serving food from a platter onto the guest’s plate was the easiest part of the waiter’s job. The fun part started when the food from the kitchen needed to be prepared, carved or filleted in front of the guests. Here one either had the experience or one did not.
Think of a whole duck or a goose, crispy baked beautifully garnished sitting on its platter on a rechaud, with guests waiting for their dinner, staring at their order which is sitting on the side table. Think of the expectations and the waiter who better carved and served it fast.
It needed skills, to quickly cut, debone and portion food. One wouldn’t want it to get cold. There was even a contraption to squeeze every drop of juice out of a duck’s carcass. Once the waiter removed the meat, he inserted the duck bones as one piece into the press. By slowly tightening the screw on top of the “Canard press,” the waiter squeezed all juice from the carcass. These drippings became part of the sauce served over the duck’s sliced meat. This, the duck a la press, used to be a bestseller in many restaurants featuring French cuisine.
Much has changed since the sixties, a waiter might never get to carve meat for his guests but it still helps to know the different names for meat cuts. It is good to know how to fillet a whole fish and to have some basic knowledge about carving. Table side service these days is very limited. Few places do a Caesar salad in front of the guest. Some restaurants still have Chateaubriand ( fillet-steak for two) and here or there we find a flaming dessert on a menu. Today silver-platters and rechauds are nostalgic items, antiquities.
Fast-food and buffets do not require much serving skill from a waiter. In the sixties and seventies, ten customers were the maximum guest-count for one waiter to be waited on, in any better restaurant. Today it is not uncommon that a waiter takes care of twenty and more customers in a so-called fine dining establishment.