Ruth Pretty’s quick guide to setting a five-star table

Ruth Pretty ‘the host with the most’ shares tips for how to create a dinner party to remember.

13 September 2018

Next week Wellingtonians will be wined and dined by Ruth Pretty, the ‘Host with the Most’, at the Outstanding New Zealand Food Producer Awards winner dinner at Prefab. Tickets are still available but are selling fast for the sure-to-be delicious four-course menu on September 19, Ruth has created to showcase a selection of outstanding New Zealand food products (see menu below).

Ruth is famous for her ability to create a night to remember and here she shares tips on creating a top table setting:

“Little details transform a good meal into an outstanding one. I think of having guests for dinner as a bit like staging a play. Take the table setting, for example… I always have that completed by the time guests arrive as that is setting the scene. You didn’t invite guests to come and watch you scrabble around in the cutlery drawer looking for enough knives and forks, you invited them for the shared enjoyment of good company and food. So be ready.

“Set each guest a place with a knife on the right (blade facing inward), fork on the left. Lefties are a passive minority and adept at simply switching the setting to suit themselves, except old lefties like me who were forced to adapt.

“How far apart are the knives and forks? Well, try putting a plate in the gap. How many forks? Well, how many courses? A main course requires a big fork and dessert requires a little fork. If you are going á la Americane, and serving a pre-main salad course you might need three. The salad fork goes on the outside of the main fork and is often smaller.

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“Dessert spoons and dessert forks go inside the first course utensils. So – on the right – knife, blade in, and then spoon, and on the left are the forks.”

“Put your wine glass or glasses (if you are serving a white and a red wine and want to be proper and posh with a glass for each) on the right of the setting – above the knife. And make sure every guest has a water glass. People do like to drink a lot of water with their meal these days, so be generous with water. We use empty wine bottles instead of water jugs. I like the straight-sided green ones which we keep filled and in the fridge and we allow one water bottle per guest. It seems a lot but it is not.

“Napkins? Linen and paper napkins are fine, but a folded paper towel is not. Never.

“Flowers and candles – make them part of the scene but not the whole of it. Guests need to see all the others at the table easily without peering around a vase of flowers or through a row of candlesticks. They’ve come for the company, and the food, so make sure that nothing intrudes on that. Making guests welcome and comfortable is your number one goal.

“Small vases of non-perfumed flowers, perhaps from your own garden or herb patch, are best for a casual meal with good friends. I think flowering herbs are lovely as they link the beautiful with the culinary. Large bowls of lilies or other highly-perfumed flowers are never OK on a dining table as many people get headaches from the powerful scent, and yet others associate lilies with funerals. If flowers are too formal, guests can feel intimidated.

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“Life is too short to be worrying about Etiquette (with a capital E) so stay away from bossy websites with prescriptive rules warning what is acceptable and what is vulgar.

For example, this gem from Wikipedia: “Some institutions wishing to give an impression of high formality, set places with many different forks for meals of several courses, although many etiquette authorities regard this as vulgar and prefer that the appropriate cutlery is brought in with each course.” Oh dear. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a “vulgar” dinner party, might be interesting.

“Be prepared when your guests arrive with a well-set table and food too, of course, and a glass of something nice to hand them. It’ll all flow beautifully from then on.”




Chef Ruth Pretty on how to host the perfect dinner party


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