Maître d'Hôtel: a historical job

The maître d'hôtel is key to restaurant success. Gil Galasso is a French maître d'hôtel, who received an award at an international competition. Here is a summary, by Gil Galasso, of the history of this particular job.

By Gil Galasso

It appears that food serving techniques in history were sometimes considered as simple techniques, sometimes as a science and sometimes were considered as an art in the modern sense of “art”. Whenever the chefs advanced a "new cuisine", as in 1651 or in 1735, 1822, 1856, 1902 or 1972, there is no response from headwaiters. This fact leads each time to a redefinition of the table service by the chefs themselves. 

Several phenomena explain this fact, but a development of "voluntary servitude", theorised by La Boétie is particularly edifying. Yet, from the beginning of history, two currents of table service were developed in parallel: on one side we have the butler, who is organising the service of a noble and is a master of rhetoric, on the other the carver, artist in gesture, who is more independent.  

For example, we find that character in a Roman mosaic from the 5th century in the Musée du Château de Boudry. A servant in the midst of a banquet, standing, holding a poultry with his left hand and a knife with his right hand. He seems to make a sweeping gesture. He is not like the other servants. Two details apart: he is the only one wearing a headdress provided, while all the other servants wear headdress slaves (shaved head, except for a small central wick), including the butler who is making an announcement in the right corner at the top. The carver seems to be the central figure of the mosaic, as five out of nine guests look in his direction. He seems to steal the show while cutting meat. 

Later in history, the “carving squire” will be chosen from the close friends of the noble, and to whom we will entrust the port of Saint-Denis banner. Take, for example, Pierre de Villiers I, a knight in 1348, which did accompany King John II in his captivity in England. The king paid his ransom and appointed the captain of the strongholds of Pontorson and Mont St Michel. He will take for the king fortresses of Chartres and Etampes. The new king Charles V took him to his service and appointed him in 1368 as the grand carving squire of the king, steward and banner servant.

The gestures of the carving squire come from mythology and myths. The poultry is kept in the air at the end of a fork. They represent the divine, the heaven. The cuts are particularly impressive and are at the service of power to impress foreign guests of nobles and kings.

The decline of the carvers was caused by the “nobility dressed” parvenus who had not mastered the art of gesture but would covet the privileged position of the carver in Versailles because the carver is placed very close to the king during the meals. Thus, gestures are no longer practised by specialists and would die in the revolution. Cutting poultry 'on the fly' falls on technical vulgar performed on a wooden board.