PART llI: TABLE D’HÔTE & THE NOTION OF SHARED-OWNERSHIP
Updated: Sep 5, 2021
In the 12th century Europe, the urban population was insufficient to create an opening scene for a public establishment like a restaurant. Paris was the largest metropolis with 300,000 inhabitants. Albeit slower, the expansions of trade and urban population continued in the Western hemisphere. In the 15th century, a separate tradition took hold in the West known as the table d’hôte – the host’s table. At a fixed price and time, guests could partake in the pleasure of dining at the communal table. Whist the lack of evidence to suggest any direct influence between Kaifeng’s prototypical restaurant and Paris’s table d’hôte, certain resonances exist between the two. Likewise, table d’hôte was an institution that catered for a more comprehensive array of people and allowed provision for travellers. The practice of dining together within a singular yet continuous tablescape formed non-kin relationships, enforced social bonds, and nourished the neighbourhood.
The 18th century was a ‘period of great intellectual leadership’19 in the Western empire. In the era heavily defined by rationalism, the social shift was underpinned by scientific explorations and findings. Food became part of gastronomic science, a discipline that nourishes men. Writings on cuisine, diet, and health began to steer the public interests toward health-oriented food. Food that possessed medicinal qualities, that surpassed the ability to satisfy one’s primal hunger, became the nouvelle cuisine. Inadvertently, the dietary preference became a means to distinguish one’s level of intellect and thus one’s social class.
Rooted from the French verb restaurer, ‘to restore oneself’, the notion of a restaurant began to circulate as a health-conscious food establishment. The so-called ‘House of Health’ would serve bouillon, the slow-simmered bone broth assumed to have medicinal and restorative properties. The purification process required for the bouillon gave a sense of delicacy that had set the dish apart from the crudity associated with the commoners’ food.
The well-educated urban elite, the middle-class who became more prominent in the French polite society, would partake in this restaurant culture to flaunt their social status. Mirrors were often fitted along the interior perimeter of the restaurants. Their optical effect would allow each individual to admire themselves among this well-versed crowd. The restaurant ‘capitalised on a growing Enlightenment- era sensibility’23 among the wealthy scholar and merchant class in Paris. Like its predecessors, through the stage set for dining, the restaurant also became a playground for social gamesmanship.