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Stew Cues: Order of precedence crucial to fine table service

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Stew Cues: by Alene Keenan

In a recent article, I talked about where to begin service once the guests are at the table. Another important bit of knowledge for service is the correct order of precedence for seating at more formal affairs.

For state dinners, rank is one factor that determines seating at the table. Depending on the purpose of an event, protocol for order of precedence may be closely followed. For instance, in the United States, for an official state dinner, a partial list of the order of precedence is as follows: The president is the highest ranking, followed by the vice president, speaker of the House of Representatives, chief justice, former presidents, secretary of state, secretary general of the United Nations, ambassadors of foreign powers, widows of former presidents, and so on.

We may never serve high-ranking government officials on our yachts, but there is generally a hierarchy of some sort to be followed that ensures no one will be offended by where they are seated. Sorting a group of guests and finding the most respectful and sensible way of seating them is essential. If you have ever planned a wedding reception, you know how important it is to properly seat guests so that they are comfortable with those around them.

According to Charles MacPherson’s wonderful book “The Butler Speaks,” in the 1900s, seating at the table depended on one’s station or rank in society. The relationship of the guests to the hosts is also a factor, as well as national or regional customs. If the host did not indicate where guests should sit, the order of precedence was followed.

In America today we generally alternate men and women at the table, with the highest-ranking female seated to the right of the host, and the second- highest to his left. The hostess will be at the other end of the table, with the highest-ranking male guest to her right, and the second-highest to her left. For a business event, guests may be seated in a way that helps build professional relationships.  

One server for 6-8 guests is usually enough. Food may be served to guest in sequence or women may be served before men. If the food is served in sequence, the woman to the right of the host is served first, the man to her right is served next, and so on. Service proceeds counter-clockwise and the host is the last person served.

When women are served first, the woman to the right of the host is served at the same time as the woman to his left. Two servers are needed, and both proceed clockwise to the women and then to the men. If there is only one server at the table, it’s a nice idea to reverse the direction of service after each course so that the same guests are not always served last.

The lifestyle of the servants in a stately home was tightly structured. They also had a strict order of precedence for mealtimes. The order of precedence was even followed when servants filed into the dining area. The butler would sit at the head of the table and the housekeeper at the opposite end. All males were seated on one side, all females on the other. The first footman sits to the butler’s right and the lady’s maid to his left. The butler would carve the meat, then send the plate to the housekeeper who served the vegetables. The second footman would take the plates around and serve in order of rank. When upper and lower servants dine together, the lower servants should speak only when addressed by their superiors.

It is hard to imagine what life was like for servants in that day and age. There are a lot of similarities to the yachting lifestyle, but they did not have the many conveniences we have today. Imagine what it would be like to live in a world without electricity, as they did.

The chain of command on a yacht is our type of hierarchy and it should be followed by all crew. We have our junior and senior crew, head of service, head of housekeeping, and the captain and other officers are at the top of the pecking order by design.

The chain of command is worthless without a chain of obedience. and the best leaders inspire confidence and command respect.

Alene Keenan is former lead instructor of interior courses at Maritime Professional Training in Fort Lauderdale. She shares more than 20 years experience as a stew in her book, “The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht,” available at yachtstewsolutions.com. Comments are welcome below.

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