When it comes to hosting, Charles MacPherson has two cardinal rules: 1) Make sure everyone has a drink in hand, and 2) Make sure everyone has someone to talk to. In other words, make sure your guests are having fun.
MacPherson, who runs a butler school in Toronto and has more than 20 years of experience managing households, is better known as Charles the Butler from his regular etiquette segments on CTV's The Marilyn Denis Show. MacPherson isn't a snob; he doesn't mind if you throw a poolside barbecue or an eight-course feast served by professionals. But his particular brand of fun does require plenty of time – and a measuring tape.
That's what I learned after following his rules for throwing a proper dinner party from his new book The Butler Speaks: A Guide to Stylish Entertaining, Etiquette and the Art of Good Housekeeping. I know to keep my elbows off the table and which fork to use for the salad course, but I never worried about whether my husband and I adhered to correct etiquette. (In fact, I'm certain we don't – my husband's preference for using his fingers over cutlery and drinking the dressing from the emptied salad bowl would make the Queen weep.)
We fancy ourselves good entertainers, but I wondered whether MacPherson's advice would, as he claims, make our dinners more memorable. Many of his tricks – "small luxuries available to us all" – cost nothing. But, in 2013, a group of twenty- and thirtysomethings – none of them in line for the throne – has little appreciation or need for symmetrical table settings and eating soup in the French style. I wanted to see if it was worth the effort.
The only time a host can relax, according to MacPherson, is just before everyone arrives. You can't be fussing with the hollandaise when you should be pampering guests. "I organize myself so that I have 30 minutes before guests arrive to sit in my living room and relax – ideally with a drink in hand," he writes. With that in mind, I pick dishes that don't require last-minute prep: Vietnamese shrimp cold rolls, Thai coconut-curry soup, Korean pork bo ssam (slow-roasted pork shoulder in lettuce wraps) and chocolate-chip cookies.
MacPherson makes it sound like a snap. It is not. Our casual Sunday dinner for seven people takes two full days – and one midnight argument over domestic responsibilities – to execute.
A good chunk of that time was spent setting the table, measuring tape in hand. (Charles the Butler is particularly pernickety about symmetry.) "One of the first rules of formal table setting is the 24-inch [61-centimetre] rule," he writes. "This refers to the ideal amount of space from the centre of one plate to the centre of the next plate, allowing the guest plenty of elbow room." Guests should be seated in alternating gender. Seven is an awkward number, and after 20 minutes of calibrating different arrangements, the settings are spaced perfectly, but four of the guests are positioned so that they'll have to straddle table legs. The chair backs must be 24 inches from the edge of the table (apparently, the metric system hasn't made much headway among the footman set), so guests don't have to pull them out to sit. Plates and cutlery should be precisely one inch from the edge of the table.
On the subject of napkins, MacPherson writes, "Overly intricate folds may be seen as a sign of a lack of sophistication, and even as unhygienic: a professional butler will do everything in his power to avoid touching your napkin." His all-time favourite fold is the diamond-shaped monogram.
Setting the table takes an hour and a half.
Then it's time to set up the bar, which should be stocked with the 16 types of booze on MacPherson's checklist. We don't have Baileys, Cointreau, Grand Marnier or coffee liqueur (does anyone drink that any more?). For me, Campari is essential. Clearly MacPherson is a little behind on his cocktail trends. (We do agree on gin, and since our guests are late, I help myself to a G&T and sit for the first time that day.)
I'm exhausted. The house is spotless, the table looks elegant and the food is ready. There's nothing left to do but enjoy our visitors, which is the point. And when everyone comes to the table, there's no shuffling of chairs or confusion over who sits where. There's no jostling of elbows, either – turns out, 24 inches is the ideal space between settings.
For cocktail hour, MacPherson loves a cheese plate: "A beautiful cheese-plate presentation says everything about you as a host." He always makes two, so that when the first one begins to look "messy and picked over," he can swap it out. Cheese just doesn't go with my menu, so, as my husband mixes negronis, I bring out a tray of cold rolls. When the first tray is nearly empty, my husband swoops in with the new platter, drawing impressed "oohs," and announces, "butler trick!" (which is probably not what Charles the Butler would have said).
I do not comment when my friend puts his iPhone on the dinner table, a pet peeve of mine. "Don't be a snob," writes MacPherson. "If you know certain rules of etiquette but someone does not, it is rude and inappropriate to advise them and make them feel uncomfortable." This is painful. Under normal circumstances, I would have scolded him, but following MacPherson's rules means exercising inordinate self-control.
Charles the Butler has plenty to say about how to carry on a conversation properly and suggests hosts prepare talking points beforehand. "I recommend reading the newspaper every morning, especially before an important dinner," he writes. I have been so busy preparing for the party that I did not prepare witty anecdotes – that might help in a group of strangers, but doesn't matter with friends, where dead air is rare.
Here's what else doesn't matter: matching glassware, eating soup in the French style (skim from the edge of the bowl nearest you out) and using your napkin correctly – especially when no one knows the rules.
For the main bo ssam course, we bring out all the condiments and large bowls of lettuce leaves. The pork, served family-style, has been roasting for seven hours and the meat falls away at the touch of a fork. We each take a lettuce leaf and stuff it with rice, pork, kimchi, sriracha sauce, maybe a spoon of ginger and scallions and hoisin sauce. Charles the Butler has no section on how to eat bo ssam. The sauce drips out of the lettuce leaves onto my hands, and it seems criminal to wipe that deliciousness onto the napkin. I've worked two days to make this dinner. It's messy. And it is good. So, yes, I licked my fingers clean. I relaxed, which I wasn't supposed to. But it was definitely fun.
THE TABLE TOP 10
Charles MacPherson's top 10 rules of table manners:
1. Put your dinner napkin on your lap – never tuck it into your collar.
2. Elbows off the table – keep them tucked into your body when eating.
3. If you don't like your food, eat only a little and don't complain.
4. Bring your fork to your mouth, not vice versa.
5. Don't point with your cutlery and put it down while chewing.
6. Never reach across the table for something.
7. Don't speak with your mouth full.
8. Never blow your nose at the table.
9. If you spill something, don't make a fuss. If you spill on someone, don't wipe them with your napkin.
10. Put your napkin on the table at the end of the meal, and tuck your chair in