Lesson 6: The etiquette of serving

After the compulsory cooking period there comes the serving. This can be an uncertain time for the uninitiated, where all the lengthy preparations of the meal can come unstuck by sloppiness at the last minute. It's difficult, but a great cookman needs to be able to improvise, like a great comedian dealing with a heckler. You must train yourself to roll with the punches, serving up punch back in the face of the puncher so that they don't know that they've literally been out-punched with punch (only applicable if you're serving punch).

Order is the key

Cookman's Toolbox: The underlying principle at work with the serving of cookmanned food is to reserve the least visually appetising and/or smallest portion for yourself. Don't worry about your own hunger levels, that's a minor detail that can be attended to with preparation.

The cookman must be the one to receive the worst portion of the food, whether that is the smallest serving of soup, the ugliest piece of pie where the lid has caved in – whichever is most appropriate to the dish. This is where improvisational techniques come to play. You must determine, at the planning stage of the meal, how to appropriately serve the meal, and how to make sure that you visibly come off worse than your guests. It is the plight of the noble chef to benefit the least from the dinner. Gaze sadly at your helping of mushed up soufflé to reinforce that you have a large, misshapen cross to bear. This will ensure that when the tables have turned and you are the guest, your host will overcompensate and provide you with the best portion of food, while they intentionally make their own terrible, with a lack of cookman skills behind it.

Remember that you have unlimited private access to your own kitchen – fill up on food long before the dinner takes place so that you are able to publicly serve yourself an insufficient amount. Your guests need never know, and, when they replicate your technique, they will miss this crucial step, potentially becoming irritable from hunger (and therefore a bad host) or, even worse, they'll go in for seconds before offering it to their guests.

With a dish that has issues of structural integrity – pies, pastries, soufflés etc. – usually it will be the first slice that suffers the most as it requires the clumsy insertion of a tool into an unbroken surface. The later slices will be far more presentable and are therefore the ones that are reserved from your guest. Robson, a wonderful cookman originating from the deepest darkness of Shropshire, had such an innate understanding with pastry that she could engineer a faulty slice in an otherwise perfect pie, a slice that would deflate upon bringing it to the dining table in full view of everyone. With a theatrical sigh, she would proclaim that to be her slice, flinging it onto her plate with disgust while attending to the others with the utmost care. Before she had even served herself, she had won the dinner, making desert a mere trifle after the main course; this is also known as Dinnermate in two moves.

If it is a dish that is more concerned with quantity, rather than presentational value – soups, stews, casseroles etc. – then the cookman must be served last, in direct opposition to the more delicate dishes. This is to ensure that the noble chef's portion is the smallest, the merest remnants of the dish after everyone else has been served. (It is particularly important with this technique to ensure that you have already eaten plenty beforehand in the privacy of your kitchen.) 

But don't fall into the trap of serving yourself a conspicuously small amount in comparison to those immediately before you. Like a good novel or film, you need to engage in a certain degree of foreshadowing. Start with a large portion for the person immediately next to yourself, followed by a similarly large portion for the next person. Then start to notice that it won't go round everyone at this rate, slimming down the portion sizes slightly, perhaps with a slight increase before you serve yourself, not wanting to shortchange any of your guests. You will then be left with the final scrap; with enough due care and attention, it will appear seamless to your guests that this is just a minor misfortune that couldn't be predicted when bringing the seven-gallon soup pan to the table. The graph below provides some quantifiable numbers should that be of any assistance, but it is a guide only, not a strict set of rules. Remember, be ready to improvise. Take a few acting classes if you feel that you need to build up your confidence in this sector.

Serving proportions