How To Eat Like a Frenchman (And get good service while traveling in france)
(Interviews like this are featured in Sojourner Tours' monthly newsletter called "After the Sojourn". Subscribe now so you can be "in the know" about all things French in Austin and abroad.)
To get you the best tips on how to eat in a French restaurant, Sojourner Tours owner, Lisa, interviewed Christophe Vain. Vain is a native Frenchman who trained for four years at an “Ecole Hoteliere” in Normandy where he graduated with honors. Vain’s three diplomas led him to possess an extensive knowledge of formal French table service (as well as cooking and wine). During his career, he has held prestigious posts including Maitre D and Sommelier in luxury & gastronomic restaurants in both the United States and France. Since he has lived in the Austin area for the better part of the past two decades with his Texan wife and two children, he is intimately familiar with both American and French food culture and customs. Who better to ask about the differences between French and American dining culture?
Lisa: What are some of the biggest differences between restaurants in the States and France?
C. Vain: It is hard because there are so many different kinds of restaurant in US and in France. One of the major differences is that in the US we serve you some iced water as soon as you arrive, but in France you have to ask for it. Also in a lot of places in the US but not everywhere, we bring you the check almost after you finish you main dish without asking if you want a dessert or coffee whereas in France you will be offered an opportunity to order dessert and then coffee and the check will not be brought to your table right away so that you can linger and talk, etc...
Lisa: When you first started working in fine restaurants in the States, what things surprised or shocked you about American dining behavior?
C. Vain: Where to start? There were several things which surprised me like, people placing their napkin on the plate when they were done and pushing the plate away from them. People drinking iced tea all the time, how loud people and restaurant are...
Lisa: What are some common dining faux-pas that Americans do in France?
C. Vain: There are several and I will say that I didn't notice those all the time in France but I did notice them. First of all, asking the waiter to change the composition of an item on the menu ( dressing on the side, no onion, extra sauce, etc...) In France the chef works a lot to create a dish; its balance, texture and flavor. To remove or "modify the recipe" is an insult to the chef. Also in France do not ask to have your plate cleared when you are done if the rest of the table is not done yet.
Lisa: There is a stereo-type that service is terrible in France: slow and rude with no sense of "the customer is always right". How would you respond to this?
C. Vain: A couple of things: most Americans only know Paris. Paris is a great city with a lot to see; but, it has a lot of improvements to make regarding customer service. Travel outside Paris and you will notice the difference. Regarding the “slow” service: YES, we take the time to eat in France!! A meal in a restaurant is a special moment when we share with someone a gustative experience for a special occasion or not. When we go to a restaurant in France, it is not just to “stuff the belly” because you don’t want to cook at home. Dining in a restaurant in France is a social experience. And yes, some people (especially in big cities) will go out to eat lunch out when they work because they can and also because the work place give them at least one hour for their lunch. By the way, that hour lunch minimum starts at the school level where children enjoy a full meal (three courses) during one hour.
Lisa: What are your tips and insider secrets for getting good service in France?
C. Vain: 1) Behave as though you are a guest in someone else’s house.
2) Respect the chef’s decisions in his menu.
3) You are not dining alone, keep your voice low.
Think about what I mentioned on the first 3 questions. Enjoy and be open minded, try something different. The Waiter, Maitre D’ and Sommelier are there to help have a good time, let them do it. Also France is not the US, do not expect the same style of service and food!
Lisa: Can you decode the nonverbal language offork and knife placement on the plate for us? What can a diner communicate to the server and how?
C. Vain: One of the classic things is to announce when you are done. If you finish your meal, place your silverware on the plate from the center of the plate to the right in a parallel manner. But even then, do not expect the waiter to clear your plate if someone at your table is still eating! If you take a break while eating and don’t want the waiter to take your plate, just cross your silverware on your plate.
Another form of nonverbal communication you can use is when you need the attention of a waiter. Just make eye contact with him and if that does not work, just make a discrete sign to the waiter with your hand (your hand should not be higher than your mouth).
Lisa: What is the difference between a Michelin Star establishment and other types of restaurants in France including a bistro, gargote, gastronomic restaurant and a regular restaurant.
C. Vain: A Michelin start establishment is an establishment rated by a private company. The notation will reflect the quality of the menu and the freshness or not of the food. This notation will also sanction the quality of the service, the atmosphere, cost etc... Some “agents” are send incognito to the restaurant and they will grade them.
That said there is absolutely nothing wrong with going to a restaurant which does not have any stars! Actually a big majority of French people don’t go to Michelin-star restaurants because a lot of them are very expensive! I had some great gustative and service experiences in small bistros or gastronomic restaurants without a single star. Go explore, look at the menu (Menus are display outside every restaurant) and try and before anything create your own opinion.