When eating a meal, there are endless factors that contribute to its enjoyability. Having worked as a cook in casual and fine dining establishments, I have often reflected on what sets a restaurant meal apart from one eaten at home. A wonderful meal is not only marked by the quality of the food, but by extraordinary service. A waiter will set the pace of the evening. They can also set the mood of the meal: a formal table side manner will feel more weighty than a chatty, personable one will. Good waitstaff are detail oriented. They set up the same way every night, marking tables, lighting candles, turning on music and tempering the volume. Obviously, I respect their hard work. As the old saying goes, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. Here are 4 suggestions on how to make an evening at home feel special, without having to leave a tip.
1. Give yourself time between cooking and serving your food. If the dish has a finishing step, take 5 minutes before you do it to comb your hair, straighten your glasses, and smooth your apron before completing it. Especially if you have been cooking for 30+ minutes, giving yourself breathing room will allow you to transition from cooking to eating more seamlessly, and help you to enjoy your hard work.
2. Take the time to stage the room. This is something your dining companion can easily do. If you are eating by yourself, use the same precision that you would if you were entertaining company. At the very least, wipe off the table that you will be eating on. Add a table cloth and paper or cloth napkins. Polish your cutlery with a dish rag to get rid of water stains. Light candles, unscented mind you, and stagger them around your eating area. Turn on some audio. If I’m eating by myself, I love to listen to The Moth podcasts. If you’re with someone else, try listening to something new. Sometimes I like to type “Italian dinner music” into Youtube and play whatever comes up that’s longer than 30 minutes. Don’t leave the TV on. The visual/oratory combination is distracting, and it will make it harder for you to focus on the food.
3. Plate your food beautifully. Take the time to warm up your dishes in a low oven if the meal is served hot, removing them at a temperature that you can comfortably touch it with an open palm before putting food on it. This ensures that it isn’t so hot that your sauces will congeal when you put them on. Place your plates/bowls in the refrigerator if the meal is cold or you are planning on serving a chilled dessert. Type ‘food porn’ into your search engine to get some plating ideas. Or look at the plating technique of a dish similar to the one you cooked. Use tongs! Make a garnish! Get creative with your food presentation!
4. Clean up after yourself. Cleaning is the inevitable conclusion of cooking. Most of us do it begrudgingly. It’s the reason many of us enjoy eating out. To alleviate this necessary evil, clean as you cook. Try to eliminate as many dishes as possible before you even sit down for the meal. When you have finished eating and have cleared your plates, turn the radio up, pour yourself a little more of whatever you were drinking, and make it fun. One word to the wise: if you have been imbibing, leave the Riedel glassware, the family heirloom serving platter and the handmade pottery for tomorrow. Know your limitations!
Special meals can be hard to pull off. In my home, we are working towards intentionality and being present. It helps that cooking is a big hobby for myself and my partner. Every time we practice setting the scene for a nice dinner, it becomes more natural. We enjoy incorporating new meal rituals into our lives, so we’d love for you to share your routines with us! Bon Apetit!