I’ve always considered myself a pretty well-mannered guy at dinner. I don’t put my elbows on the table or eat with my mouth open. OK, that’s about it but hey, I’m a guy. Beyond that, I’m perplexed. I mean really, what are all those utensils for?
Suzanne Willis knows. She is public relations director at the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota, Fla., whom I met last year at the Ritz at dinner with others and wondered aloud about the utensil issue. The Ritz being the Ritz meant more utensils than I knew what to do with.
“Easy rule,” she said. “Start from the outside and work your way in.”
Willis, it turns out, is also creator of “Mimi’s Manners,” taught at the Ritz and other places, etiquette classes for kids to instill in them basic manners in a fine-dining setting. It’s named in honor of Willis’s grandmother, the late Florence Sayers Larimer Black, affectionately known as Mimi to her grandchildren. She was a stickler for good manners and taught her grandchildren well.
“She’d say ‘E’s off’,” Willis recalled. “It meant ‘elbows off the table, please’.”
Black was on the board of directors for the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation for more than 30 years, and once met the Thomas and Mina Edison when she was young, Willis said. She served on many other charitable boards as well and in her spare time, would entertain friends at afternoon tea, a place where good manners are a must.
Willis's classes for kids 6 to 12 are typically two hours long and include not only proper use of all that stuff on the table, but introductions, handshakes and proper dinner conversation, taught during a three-course meal. Kids also learn about respect, consideration, and how to write (or draw) a thank-you note, which is somewhat of a dying tradition in the email-and-text era. The students get a workbook and certificate of completion. Courses run $45 per child.
Looking at all those dishes and glasses also made me wonder: Which bread dish and glass are mine?
“That’s easy, too,” Willis smiled, telling me to make a circle with thumb and forefinger of each hand, the left resembling a ‘b’ and the right a ‘d’. “The b is for ‘bread dish’, the d for ‘drink’.”
As part of her course, Willis gives kids a manners reminder card. I think I need one.
(Photo of Suzanne Willis from "Mimi's Manners" website)