Teenagers and table etiquette go together like bulls and china shops. Nevertheless, here they are together at the downtown Daily Grill, a bunch of sophomores from CALS Early College High School — cute, fraught, dressed in their Sunday best, determined to conquer multiple forks and the salad course.
"You guys remember the deal with the butter, right?" asks their homeroom teacher, 28-year-old Shannon Meyer. "Pull it toward you and take a little bit."
This etiquette lesson was her idea.
Meyer's school serves populations that are historically underrepresented in post-secondary education, and she is fiercely protective of her students. She is adamant they not be characterized as "inner-city" kids who are in need of table manners.
"The assumption wasn't that these kids don't know the rules of etiquette. The assumption was that all kids don't know them," she says. Indeed, at some point, everyone has been at a dinner, confused about which fork to use.
Her kids, on the other hand, do not mince words about where they are from. "It's the ghetto," says Gilbert Ibarra. Actually, they live in Northeast Los Angeles communities such as Highland Park, Cypress Park and Echo Park.
Ibarra and the others are highly motivated, shlepping to college courses at night after their regular classes. With these kids, everything is a learning opportunity.
When Meyer found out that Joshua Kassa grew up in Ethiopia, the only nation that was able to resist European colonization, she asked him to give a first-person account of his life there. Kassa also was the student who drafted the letter to the restaurant, outlining their etiquette-lesson request. He and classmate Sergio Monte-rosso then followed up in person.
"It's a great lesson for kids, the power of asking," says Terri Henry, the restaurant's vice president of marketing.
High school sophomores aren't exactly Daily Grill's demographic (i.e., lots of suits). But savvy marketers bank on the future. When the kids are done with school, when they're looking for a place to close that high-powered real estate deal, Henry hopes they'll think of her restaurant.
"I don't know," says Angel Jimenez, contemplating what he wants to be when he grows up. For fun, he Googles books banned by the government, then checks them out to read from the library. "Philosopher? Something that makes money. Business maybe? Maybe I'll be a vice president of marketing at a restaurant."
Among the students are an aspiring marine biologist, neurosurgeon, nurse, forensic pathologist, event planner, video-game designer, lawyer and professional soccer player.
Their orders, however, reflect no such variety: pasta, pasta, pasta, pasta, pasta, pasta, more pasta and one cheeseburger. With the exception of the cheeseburger guy, they all want to practice twirling noodles. Silent concentration ensues. Cradle spoon against fork. Twirl.
"I like how in my classroom I can't get you to be quiet, but I take you out...," Meyer's voice trails off. "Oh, remember, we talked about slurping. That's the No. 1 sin in fine dining."
"What do you do about the pinky?" Jimenez asks.
"When you drink. Do you have to stick it up?"
Jimenez had a bit of a head start. He went to a fancy restaurant for the first time in his life the week prior to practice. It was the Olive Garden. He knew it was fancy because it was dark. Asked what he thinks of the rules of etiquette, he says, "They're weird."
Or, perhaps, they only make sense to adults. Don't talk with food in your mouth. Don't wave your knife in the air while talking. Keep your elbows off the table. Why shouldn't we crumple our napkin? Or wipe our face (or nose) with it?
Contrary to popular belief, kids don't pop out of the womb knowing the difference between a cappuccino and a latte. "We learned how to order Starbucks last time," Sarah Gonzalez explains.
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The end of lunch prompts further lessons. Question: "What's that little black book?" Answer: the bill. The total (footed by the restaurant) comes out to $470. "How much?" asks one kid. "Jeez!"
Which reminds Meyer, "When you read the bill, don't go like this," she says, and opens her mouth wide in shock. "And don't make strange faces. And don't cheat on the tip."
Meyer is a gifted teacher with tremendous respect for her students. She has great hopes for them. "I can just feel an e-mail coming in 10 years saying, 'Miss, I was at a business-lunch interview and I knew just what to do.' "
Next up: thank-you notes.