Stirring Words


What I Do: Annabel Jackson
Annabel Jackson (11/02/2011)

Photograph of Annabel JacksonI grew up in the English countryside in a farming family. Today, I teach dining etiquette to the banking community in Hong Kong. Actually I have a wider portfolio than that – but what interesting ‘spin-offs’ there are to be had from being a food (and wine) writer and someone with plenty of PR experience. One niche cuisine I specialize in is the indigenous cooking of Macau, the would-be Vegas which is Hong Kong’s neighbour. My core interest is less the cooking itself and more the interaction of culture and cuisine. Perhaps that interest is how my dining etiquette classes got started. You only have to watch the scene from the food movie Tampopo, teaching Ladies Who Lunch the proper way to eat spaghetti alle vongole, to get the picture.
Even when dining in a smart Cantonese restaurant in a Hong Kong five-star hotel, there is very little to worry about. Drop a dumpling on the white linen, spill soy sauce, send tea all over your neighbour’s plate – no problem. There are a few things: don’t point with your chopsticks, and only help yourself to the food nearest you. Don’t turn over a fish, because that’s considered bad luck. Compare these simple tenets to, on a more international level, what to do with your soup spoon between sips, which fork to use for which course, how to butter bread, what to do with your napkin if you get up to go to the buffet, which angle for slicing cheese, how to toast with a glass of wine – and so it goes on. Using a toothpick at the table? Lipstick? And a critical one – what to do with your knife and fork when you have finished your main course.
We are not, I say to students at the beginning of a ‘practice’ dinner, trying to enforce westernised dining protocol. I want you to leave here feeling confident in an international dining setting; and we will attempt to establish some understood norms in our global village. How to eat, drink, talk – and probably take notes – at the same time over a business lunch for six where six nationalities could easily be represented. Most of the delegates I work with are based in Hong Kong, but are not necessarily Chinese. Even if they are Chinese, they might be Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Mainland or Overseas Chinese, each with their own cultural nuances, if not major differences in experience and outlook.
I focus on how to host a business dinner. To know how to host, even if you rarely do that, is to know how to be a good guest, too. One private banker, an Australian, had invited an important client for lunch, who happened to be a serious wine lover. It was suggested that the guest order the wine. The result? The entertainment budget for the month – gone. It is a classic case of being a bad guest, but we also work on how to avoid gaffs like that as a host.
Another part of my training work is with Hong Kong University undergraduates. One session is actually held in an Irish pub, to familiarize students who might be having internships in Europe with pub culture. Whether to stand or sit and where not to sit – on a regular’s stool! What to order, who pays (how does that ‘round’ thing work?), whom to talk to and about what, and so on. All things that for some are culturally engrained and for others are entirely foreign.
Similarly, I include a section on the protocols of being invited to someone’s home for dinner, particularly given that most entertaining in Hong Kong is conducted in restaurants. I share one personal experience of inviting people to dinner who assured me they were not vegetarian and then turned out to be just that; and at the same dinner I ran out of white wine because I had been informed they drank red, which was not the case. It was extremely awkward for me as host, but also embarrassing for the other dinner guests. I impress the importance of mentioning to a host that you don’t eat pork, that you are allergic to prawns, that you have a dairy intolerance; and I give ideas of appropriate gifts to bring along.
I also do cocktail party survival skills. One student reported back that, in London, she had to attend a cocktail party at which Prince Charles was present. Without our training session, she said, she would surely have been too terrified to go.


Author: Annabel Jackson Email:


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