Life Lessons from Francis Brennan’s school of charm

The co-owner with his brother, John, of Kenmare’s five-star Park Hotel knows how to treat people and how to be treated. He has put his wisdom into a book and Claire O’Sullivan picked out some gems.

FRANCIS BRENNAN isn’t a snob. Rather, with his endearing mannerisms, irresistibly quaint humour and legendary experience of the hospitality industry, the TV host and owner of the Kenmare Park Hotel is ‘much-loved’. So he is just the person to write a book on manners: It’s the Little Things: Francis Brennan’s Guide to Life.

His approach is ‘no-nonsense’, with him poo-pooing current preoccupations with cooking restaurant quality dinners at home — a stew is “delicious if you do it properly”.

“Manners aren’t about class or ‘breeding’, Gold help us. As far as I’m concerned, manners are about respect for others — respect and consideration,” he says. “As the great expert on manners, Emily Post, put it, ‘Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use’.”

Francis on children and manners

Francis doesn’t have children, so he doesn’t preach about parenting. “Establish what are the ground rules in your house, by deciding what you think is important, whether it’s eating peas with a fork or not interrupting others,” he says. Sort the basics out at home and it will make their behaviour in public much less embarrassing. I can’t help but think of a comment my sister made about parents (she works with children): “don’t they realise that children need to be taught manners, that they need to be like a broken record for it to eventually hit home, that it won’t happen automatically and that it’s not a teacher’s job?”

Here are Francis’s lessons for children:

1. Listen to others.

2. Wait for your turn to speak.

3. Take your plate to the dishwasher after dinner.

4. Wait at the table until others are finished.

5. Close your mouth when eating.

6. Try to eat as quietly as you can.

7. Say excuse me when you want ‘Mammy’s’ and ‘Daddy’s attention.

8. Say please and thank you.

Francis on table manners

1. Eat with your mouth closed and don’t talk with food in your mouth.

2. Your napkin should be on your knee.

3. If you need to blow your nose, “don’t honk on to the table”, but nip out to the toilet. If you have to sneeze, turn away from the table and do it discreetly into a tissue.

4. He also reminds me of my grand aunt’s favourite rule: ‘no elbows on the table and no waving your cutlery around’. If eating soup, don’t slurp, but “scoop it up gently into the spoon and sip from the side of the spoon”.

5. It is acceptable to remove a fish bone from your mouth with your hands, he says, and “the same goes for olive stones and peach stones. If you’ve encountered a nasty piece of gristle, don’t yank it from your mouth. Push it out onto your fork and discreetly place it on the plate”.

6. Ask a fellow diner to pass the butter; don’t reach across to get it.

7. And that old chestnut: if there are people at your table still eating, don’t get up and wander off. Wait until it is polite to do so, and excuse yourself.

Francis on the ‘ancient art of grooming’

There is no baloney from Francis and his attitude to grooming illustrates that wonderfully. A well-polished and well-heeled pair of shoes, ironed clothes in good condition (they need not be spanking new), without holes or stains, freshly-washed hair, and clean nails and teeth are the most important facets of grooming. Make-up should be subtle, he says, and “hold off on the fake tan” because ‘less is more’. For men, keep your nose, eyebrow and ear hair trimmed.

Francis on restaurant manners

Mobile phones are “not guns in a saloon”, he says, and shouldn’t be “slung onto the table”, so people can check them all night and play with them. He switches his phone off in a restaurant. If you can’t, he says, then excuse yourself from the table if you have to take a call and return promptly. Francis says he laughs when the front-of-house man at the Park Hotel asks guests to ‘follow him’ to the dining table and the guests “scatter like ducks”. “Take it from me: the waiter knows the quickest way to your table, so follow him”. If dining with children, parents should give them something to eat as soon as possible, for instance buttered bread. People should not wave at waiters to ask for water or bread; just catch their eye. As regards what knife and fork to use, “just remember the magic words ‘outside in’ and you’ll be grand”.

Francis on dividing restaurant bills:

“If you are sharing the bill, decide beforehand to split it between everyone equally — no totting up of desserts and petits fours at the table, to see if Mary should be paying five euro more than John”.

If you join the party later, you shouldn’t have to pay equally, but if you were present from the beginning, “I’m afraid it’s fair game”. Pay an equal share “even if you just ordered a main course”.

Francis on dressing for an occasion

Black-tie occasions are just that. Not a white tuxedo, but a black one, shirt, and a bow tie, not a regular black tie. For women, it can vary from a long evening gown to a cocktail dress, but they shouldn’t overdo the ‘bling’. The ‘semi-formal’ means a suit and plain tie, for a man, and a knee-length cocktail dress, a suit or a smart dress, for a woman. Smart casual means a shirt with a collar, for a man, while smart jeans can be acceptable for women in semi-formal situations. For casual and ‘dress-down days’, he suggests slacks and polo shirts, for men (again, we see the all-important collar), while women can wear jeans again, if dressed with a blouse.

Francis on having people over for dinner

Keep guest numbers at eight or below. With 10 people at a table, “conversation doesn’t flow”. If you are a vegetarian, coeliac or vegan, let your host know immediately.

As for the dinner itself

1. Prepare as much as you can in advance. Dishes that can be prepared in advance include a terrine or a smoked-salmon salad for starter. Some experts, he says, swear by the formula of cold starter and dessert, and hot main course.

2. Barbeques are a great way of entertaining large groups of more than one generation, as children can run outside, while grandparents remain indoors. All salads can be prepared in advance.

3. For starters, he recommends soups, such as vegetable, or, if you feel like being fancier, add chorizo or make a curried parsnip soup or even a chilled soup, like gazpacho, if it’s summer. Antipasti, a shared plate of Mediterranean produce, like salami, olives, nice bread, sundried tomatoes or artichokes, will always be appreciated and are a relaxed start.

4. For main course, think dishes that can be prepared in advance, like lasagne or vegetarian lasagne, or salmon lasagne, a curry, stew or casserole. “You can be adventurous with it: there’s venison stew … a lovely, provencal fish stew is delicious and, if you’re vegetarian, try a Moroccan-style chickpea stew with spices and cous cous”.

5. For dessert, he loves a baked cheesecake and says you can’t go wrong with an Eton mess (a mix of broken merruinge, whipped cream, and fruit), or a good homemade apple tart.

Don’t forget, he says, everyone loves a crumble and “there can be nothing more delicious in life than apple and blackberry crumble”.

6. Irish people are famous for not turning up on time. As a rule of thumb, if the invitation says ‘7.30 for 8’, that generally means drinks at 7.30 and dinner at 8. In this situation, it’s polite to turn up no later than 7.45. He does warn, however, that if you turn up at 7.30pm, the hosts might still be hoovering.

7. As regards the event itself, he has some beauties: try not to seat husbands and wives beside each other, as they may be too used to talking to one another; don’t sit two quiet people beside each other; mix shy and chatty friends; and don’t waste the ‘life and soul’ of the party by putting them next to you, the host. You need to make maximum use of them. The host is best seated close to the kitchen.

Francis on having a guest to stay for a night or two (but never more than three):

1. Make sure that your house is warm. “A warm welcome, with heat, is important”.

2. A set of fresh bed linen is always appreciated (pillowcases should always face away from the door), and clean towels, with perhaps a few magazines to make the guests feel at home. A reading lamp and water will also be appreciated.

3. Show them where everything is when they arrive and where they can help themselves to tea, coffee, bread, the TV remote, etc.

4. You might let guests know your busy times as a family, so there won’t be clashes with bathroom or breakfast times.

5. Leave things out on the kitchen table, if they are departing at an ungodly hour. If they need transport, give them directions to the bus stop or taxi ranks.

Francis on wedding presents:

He says that the modern tradition of giving money “takes a little getting used to”, while conceding that the custom of the dowry is “as old as the hills”.

But Francis is more of a fan of the present, tellng a story about his mother’s ivory-handled bread knife that “if she said it once, she said it a million times”, was given as a present from so-and-so. He suggests an antique carving set or antique cutlery, a Waterford Crystal decanter, a painting, a voucher for their favourite restaurant or hotel, or a personalised wedding newspaper with their stories about them.

“I always try and give something that has a presence and will last a lifetime. If you give them a toaster, it’ll be practical, but it’ll be gone in a year or two”. He advises against overly personalised presents, such as his ’n’ her towels, which aren’t to everybody’s taste. Keep it neutral, he says (and you can just imagine him wagging his index finger, with his glasses on the tip of his nose).

Francis on announcing births, deaths and marriages:

He’s not a fan of texting dinner party invites, never mind texting the birth of your child. You get the feeling from the book that he’d secretly love if hand-engraved dinner party invites were still sent by post, and so, in a concession to modern living, he suggests phoning to invite somebody for dinner.

“This also has the benefit of getting people to commit themselves to the event in good time,” he says.

For a christening, he suggests making the occasion special by sending out a written invite, because it will remain a memento. Wedding invites are the one social situation where people tend to revert to old-fashioned formality. He has a solution for a personal bugbear of mine: if you don’t know somebody’s partner’s first name or surname, phone and ask for it.

Francis on negotiating office politics:

He is clear on this one: “there is a right and wrong way to behave in working life”. Be courteous, get to know your colleagues and have a laugh. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, if you’re a newcomer, listen rather than talk at the outset and guage how the office works, as “you have to fit in with them, not the other way around”.

Rise above office gossip, but remain aware of tensions and difficulties, so you don’t get unwittingly sucked into drama. Be pleasant to everyone, “no matter what their status”, as you never know when you might need their help. ‘Never complain and never explain’ is one of Mr B’s favourite expressions for when problems arise in the workplace. “Nobody likes excuses or lengthy explanations for why things went wrong”. Just put them right, he says.

On dealing with difficult personalities, he advises keeping emotion out of your response, remaining calm, and trying to use ‘I’ rather than ‘you’ when you’re tackling the ‘difficult personality’. Say: ‘I’d really like if you included me in that memo the next time’, instead of ‘you didn’t include me in that memo and I’m really annoyed’.

Francis on baby presents:

He points to the tradition of giving silver on the birth of a child. This stems from Victorian times, when the wealthier had silver spoons made for themselves at birth. Peasants had to make do with wooden spoons, hence the phrase ‘born with a silver spoon in his mouth’. With newborn pics now Facebooked and Instagrammed within hours of a child’s birth, he suggests something that the child can have for life and hand down to his or her children: handknitting, a painting, a china plate or bowl, or a handknitted blanket.

Wedding speeches:

Risque is fine at a wedding speech, but lewd isn’t. It’s a fine line. “It’s quite acceptable to allude to a former life of last-nights and partying, if you don’t get too specific about it”. He also advises against any mention of former partners. Keep the speech to 10 minutes and, if public speaking is not your forte, just keep it short and sincere. Also, acknowledge everyone and practice the speech beforehand.

Francis on funerals:

Long-running disputes can flare up at family events, and there’s nothing like an Irish funeral for unleashing repressed anger and bitterness. Francis urges people to park their issues for a day and focus on the deceased. He loves the Irish culture of the community attending a funeral, even including people who did not know the deceased. “If you’re bereaved, you’ll always remember who came to your mother or father’s funeral”, he says.

He also advises families to check if eulogies are permitted at a religious ceremony, while he advises guests to always sign the book of condolences, as the family may not have realised you were in attendance.

When making a eulogy, he says keep it honest and, if the dead person had problems, acknowledge there were difficulties and move on.

Click on this link to read our review of Kenmare's five-star Park Hotel


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