The French are renowned for their style and personal grooming, but did you know that, culturally, this is not done for vanity, but rather as a mark of respect?
Presenting oneself well when interacting with others is regarded as polite — so athleisure wearers — look away now.
The same approach could also apply to how we present our homes, where a visitor has the sense of being valued and welcomed because we’ve tidied specially, or where, in the midst of the whirlwind of family life blustering around, you make the effort of bringing out a nice cup and tea pot with your best chocolate cake.
Sometimes it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it.
For more upscale entertaining, making a good impression on guests doesn’t have to involve slaving to tearful exhaustion while juggling carrots and candelabra as you attempt to craft 10 identical parfait in sugar cages.
Success comes down to providing a tasty bite to eat, a few drinks, and good company, served by kind and welcoming hosts.
This is easy to overlook, though, if you are a less than accomplished cook eager to make an impression, but the extra-long Easter weekend coming up means plenty of time to prepare and assemble a beautiful table to show off the least complicated catering and leave your guests amazed at your styling and creativity.
A man who knows a thing or two about laying a table is TJ Mulcahy, general manager at the five-star Hayfield Manor in Cork, newly appointed to the role after 10 years at the equally salubrious, Ashford Castle.
However, far from advocating a complicated approach, his advice reflects a relaxed style along with attention to detail that quality hotels have made into a fine art. “Keep it simple,” he says, “and add magic.”
By magic, he’s not suggesting waving wands or pulling an Easter bunny out of a hat; it’s simply his acronym for entertaining success: M for motivation, A for attention to detail, G for gift, I for illusion, and C for character.
“Start by getting motivated,” he says.
“Put Beauty and the Beast on with ‘Be Our Guest’ playing — it’s great for inspiration and fun.”
If you don’t have the DVD , You Tube will oblige with a ‘Be Our Guest’ recording, rendered in the dulcet tones of Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury, to give an Easter version of the happy vibe we get at Christmas when Sound of Music is, inevitably, on the telly.
After that, it’s attention to detail, and TJ takes the culinary pressure off.
“Have simple food with good quality local meat and veg,” he advises.
“Don’t make things complicated. Plain white china is perfect and you can add in decorative napkins, and make sure glasses and cutlery are polished.”
For gleaming silverware, his hotel remedy is immersing it in water with tin foil, a tablespoon each of salt and baking powder, and it’s on to linens which he advises to steam-iron beforehand and not be tempted to do it when it’s already on the table.
Once the cloth is in position, TJ suggests a table runner, something we don’t often add, preferring either a cloth or runner. He confesses it’s the influence of his Swedish wife and the Scandinavian’s love of runners — they add colour.
Another hotel trick: The one-inch rule.
“Use a charger plate to define where someone will sit, one inch from the edge of the table and one inch from the cutlery,” he says.
“After that sit down at the table and look where your guests are looking. Check for cobwebs and that lights are working.”
Moving swiftly onto letter G, he suggests a gift at each place setting: “It’s Easter so little Easter eggs or a fun game will get everyone interacting.”
I is for illusion, which means a theme. “It’s spring, so greens or yellows are appropriate. If you have different sets of ware, use them for different courses,” he says.
“Bring in candles and centrepieces, but make sure they’re not high and impede the sightline.”
Letter C is for character: “Organise your table plan so you have the right people sitting next to the right people and conversation flows.
“This kind of entertaining isn’t something you’re doing every night, but it’s key that you don’t get stressed out, so be gentle with yourself and enjoy doing it.”