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Flambé, carving knives, and the lost art of tableside service

16 May 2012
Flambé, carving knives, and the lost art of tableside service
Flambé, carving knives, and the lost art of tableside service

There was once real theatre to fine dining. As a small boy, and already food obsessed, I once ordered scampi in a posh restaurant. I of course expected something in breadcrumbs, and I think my parents did too, but instead the waiter appeared pushing a trolley and looking very self-important.

He flamboyantly fried the fresh scampi, although not with any breadcrumbs I sadly noted, and then sloshed in some liquid. The whole lot went up in flames with a satisfying ‘whoomp’ noise, the heat almost blasting me off my chair. I was hooked – dinner and pyromania, what more could a small boy wish for?

In the 1970s it was still fairly standard practice to have this kind of carry-on in upmarket restaurants. It may or may not have made the food taste better, but it delivered theatre for sure.

Flambé. Up in smoke?

These days flambé is mostly forgotten, along with other forms of tableside excitement. The waiters just bring the food and put it on the table (and still expect a tip). Don’t they miss the excitement of the Crepe Suzette ignition, or the thrill of de-boning an entire fish in front of a salivating punter? Thank goodness some joints are still keeping the flame of tableside service alight.

The Drift, a modern glass walled place in the City, has reintroduced flambé to a younger crowd. "We use our existing chefs and make sure they have an outgoing personality," says Rob Mitchell, the executive chef at Drake & Morgan. "It's a performance, so they need to be confident characters who can answer any questions and make it interactive and fun."

Wiltons in Jermyn Street couldn’t be more old-school. The menu reads as it probably did forty odd years ago and that’s exactly what the customers like, says General Manager James Grant. "Every day of the week we carve at table with a different roast each day: rib of beef, whole gammon and a salmon coulibiac, a classic old Tsarist dish. We also serve all our soup out of tureens, shuck oysters, carve smoked salmon and do a classic crepes suzette at the table. Flambé is a bit tricky on the Health and Safety side though to be honest."

Oink if you’re hungry

At Iberica Marylebone they go a bit different and carve their suckling pig at table using nothing but two plates. "It’s traditional," explains MD Marcos Fernandez Pardo, "it’s a sign of quality, of how tender the meat is. It’s also harking back to communal eating and each taking what you want. It’s involving."

Over at Skylon on the South Bank, chef Helena Puolakka is a fan of food theatre. "Crepe Suzette is the most classic flambé pudding and the concentration of flavour is just magical," she enthuses. "As soon as other customers see one portion done and can smell the caramelised orange reduction and see the flames, they want to have it too. Mind you in the early days we did have a small accident with a sofa catching fire. Our restaurant manager Kim put it straight out and every guest started clapping and shouting bravo for his action!"

Table magic

Of course the cheese trolley is still a fixture in many a place, but you have to pity the poor waiter listing each cheese over and over again to people a bit tipsy and not listening. Over at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, they have an ice cream making machine which comes to your table. Made from one solid piece of Corian it billows smoke while making ice cream with liquid nitrogen. Now that’s truly table magic.

Do you recall any table excesses of yesteryear? Did you lose your eyebrows in a crepe suzette related incident? Do let us know in the comments below.

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