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Art and Ambience: How to Host the Perfect Dinner

Chantal Wittmann

In a hectic world, it can be hard to find the time to invite friends and family over for a special meal. There is an art to entertaining at home, which can feel like foreign territory for those who are out of practice. At first glance, throwing a memorable dinner party can seem like a complex affair, but what looks intimidating can actually be quite simple. Perhaps no one knows this better than Chantal Wittmann.

Understanding the Art of the Table

Originally from the Alsace region of France, Chantal Wittmann is passionate about l’art de la table and recognized as among the best in the field. Currently senior lecturer at Glion Institute of Higher Education in Switzerland, Chantal has held the title of MOF (Meilleur Ouvrier de France) since 2011 for her achievements in table arts and service. This competitive award is presented every four years in France in honor of the best craftsmen nationwide.

The traditions and rites of the multi-course gastronomic meal in France have been enshrined in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list since 2010. And while the term l’art de la table is familiar in France, it seems to lack a direct translation in English. So, what exactly does this concept mean? According to Chantal, “L’art de la table involves the physical elements of the place where your guests dine — the tablecloth, the cutlery, the glassware, the décor, the service — but above all, it’s the ambience you create.”

Pleasure and Emotion

“For me, there are two kinds of meals: there’s the meal for survival, and the meal for pleasure,” Chantal says. It is the latter of these two meals which she has made her life’s passion: “In the experience of dining, ‘pleasure’ and ‘emotion’ are two words that are very important.”

And at the center of this experience is the table. “The table is the place where so much happens in life: celebrations, announcements, moments of joy or even sadness,” observes Chantal. “When you think of it that way, the table is really a symbol of life.” Little wonder, then, that how the table is set can determine the mood of a meal.

Finding Harmony in the Details

Cultivating a special dining atmosphere is an art, but you don’t need to be a maître d’hôtel to host a memorable meal at home. Chantal recommends keeping the following tips in mind: “First, think of what kind of ambience you want to provide. Is it cozy and informal? Or glamorous and upscale? Next, ask yourself: how can you convey this ambience through the five senses? Whatever the mood, aim to have all the details of the meal in harmony with this ambience.”

Whether it’s a casual pizza or a multi-course meal, the menu should match the table setting. But harmony is also achieved through many other elements, including lighting, music, decorations and even the dress code.

Setting the Stage: Tips for a Festive Dinner Party

Let’s say you want to host a dinner party for a special occasion like New Year’s Eve. Here are Chantal’s suggestions for a meal to remember:

•       Tablecloth: For a classic look, choose a light color. White is especially versatile, as just about any kind of tableware can be added on top, while light grey or silver also work well for a festive occasion. Pro tip: Get rid of creases by ironing the tablecloth after placing it (evenly!) on the table.

•       Dishware: Try white porcelain set on top of gold or silver presentation plates for elegance and sparkle. Leave a white napkin rolled with a silver ribbon on the porcelain plate, and for a final touch, add a chocolate or small gift.

Cutlery: If it’s not too crowded, go ahead and place all the cutlery necessary for the evening on the table. There should be a maximum of three pieces of cutlery on each side of the plate — knives and spoons on the right, forks on the left — and from outside to inside, cutlery should be placed in the order in which it will be used. A maximum of three pieces of cutlery should be above the plate, which could include a knife for cheese and a medium spoon and fork for dessert.

Glassware: Place a maximum of four glasses for red wine, white wine, champagne and water. Glasses should be to the right of the plate, while bread and salad plates go to the left. Just remember: solids on the left, liquids on the right.

Flowers and décor: You don’t need to know how to arrange a bouquet to make use of flowers. Something as simple as single white roses placed in small vases on the table can look great. Sprinkle a few sequins on the tablecloth for extra sparkle.

Lights and candles: Make sure that guests can see their food, but avoid overpowering light. Candles are a must for creating a warm, cozy ambience; go for candles that match the tablecloth, and choose candles that are unscented — you don’t want artificial smells mixing with the aroma of your food.

Music: Keep the music low at the beginning and during the meal so that your guests can hear each other easily. But don’t be afraid to turn the music up as the evening progresses!

Dress: As host, dress according to the occasion — you don’t want your guests to feel over- or underdressed. In your invitations, you can even include a suggestion on attire, such as: “Please join us for an evening in white.” The same applies to gifts — a note, such as “white wine welcome,” can help guests feel good about what they bring.

Showtime: Welcoming Your Guests

Finally, a good host should have everything ready before the guests arrive. “Make them feel as if you’ve been waiting for them,” Chantal says. Even in a more casual setting, where guests might join the host in the kitchen to prepare a dish, there are ways to create an inviting atmosphere from the first moment. “Have everything on the table ready, prepare an aperitif corner, light the candles beforehand. That first impression is your chance to really ‘wow’ your guests.”

While dining, consider bringing food into the conversation to strike a balance between enjoying your company and enjoying your meal. “I sometimes find that we get so wrapped up in conversation that we forget to pay attention to the food. Perhaps we should take time to talk about each dish, the wine, the flavors, to really savor and appreciate the meal,” suggests Chantal.

The Joy of Giving

If the thought of hosting a dinner party still seems daunting, remember that the effort is its own reward. “There’s a real pleasure that comes from welcoming your guests and enabling them to enjoy themselves,” Chantal says. It’s a joy that she transmits to her own students while teaching the art of service at Glion.

Creating the ambience for a meal is a pleasure as well as an opportunity to leave guests with lasting memories. Many memories, after all, are formed at the social gatherings that take place at the table. As for the real trick to setting the perfect table? “The right table,” Chantal says, “is the one that invites your guests to come and sit down.”

Chantal Wittmann has over 30 years of teaching experience within the hospitality sector. Over the years, she has coached students for competitions and taught a range of subjects. She won the prestigious title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 2011.

As Gastronomic Restaurant Manager and Senior Lecturer at Glion Institute of Higher Education, Chantal specializes in the practical teaching of service and fine dining. She also specializes in floral art and is the head of Glion’s new gastronomic restaurant, Le Bellevue, due to open in early 2018.

Glion Institute of Higher Education

Founded in 1962, Glion Institute of Higher Education is a private Swiss institution offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees in hospitality, luxury and event management to an international student body across three campuses in Switzerland and London, UK. Glion also offers a dual-degree MBA and MSc program in partnership with Grenoble École de Management.

Part of Sommet Education, Glion is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Inc. (NEASC) and ranked among the world’s top five higher education institutions for employer reputation in hospitality management (QS World University Rankings 2017).