Interview Strategies: Handling Mealtime Interviews With Aplomb

Interview Strategies: Handling Mealtime Interviews With Aplomb

Valerie Fontaine and Roberta Kass
Special to
January 25, 2010

Editor's note: This is the second article in a series providing interview tips and techniques for attorneys. Links to previous articles in the series follow this article.

The lunch (or breakfast, or dinner) interview is ideally suited to reveal characteristics about the candidate not easily discovered otherwise, and can be useful from the job seeker's point of view for similar reasons. Handled well, the social ritual of breaking bread together can cement a relationship. Conversely, handled poorly, one interview meal alone can destroy a candidate's chances of getting a job offer. Furthermore, you will be judged on how you might handle yourself in similar situations in the future when clients (or potential clients) are present.


Remember that this is an interview, not a social occasion. Although it's a more relaxed setting, don't let your guard down. What you eat, how you eat, what you say and how you act all will be scrutinized. Above all, MIND YOUR MANNERS! If you are unsure of your etiquette, stage a dress rehearsal. Ask a good friend or loved one to dine with you and honestly (and constructively) critique your mealtime technique. We'll give you some of the basics below, but you can also study up online, read Emily Post or take a brush-up etiquette course to polish any rough spots.


Scrutiny begins from the moment you enter the restaurant. Your cell phone should already be turned off. Be polite to the maitre d' and all wait staff. Follow your host to the table and allow her to indicate where you should sit; don't just grab a seat. When asked for your beverage order, ask for water, iced tea or soda, but not an alcoholic beverage, even if your host does so. (If the interview is at dinner, and you are encouraged to order an alcoholic beverage, stick to wine -- and just ONE glass!) Put your napkin on your lap right away. Remember that the bread and butter plate to your left, and the glasses on the right, are the ones you use. Offer the bread basket to others at the table before helping yourself.


Don't be indecisive. Choose a menu item you know and like; this is not the time to try something new. Keep logistics in mind: no sloppy sandwiches, stringy pizza, unpeeled shellfish or bony ribs. Avoid foods that drip, spatter or get stuck in your teeth. Good bets are easily cut meat, fish, or poultry, chopped salads, or small pastas (that you don't have to twirl around your fork and risk spraying sauce). You may also want to keep spicy or garlicky foods to a minimum if you are going to continue the interview afterwards. You don't want to smell of food, suffer from indigestion, or worse!

Take a cue from your host when choosing your meal. Notice whether or not she orders an appetizer, soup, salad, or after-meal coffee and/or dessert. Keep your host's time constraints in mind, and don't linger unless your host wishes to do so. Never order the most expensive item on the menu; choose something in the same range as the dish your host orders. Order something similar to what your host chooses, or ask her for a suggestion.

If you have special dietary requirements, quietly choose something that meets your needs, without discussing the details with your host. Nearly every menu has selections to accommodate vegetarian and other dietary preferences. It's acceptable to request dressing on the side, or for cheese or sauce to be omitted, but don't make a big deal about it. Minimize substitutions or exceptions to the menu. Remember: you want to keep the focus on YOU, not the food. (If you are strictly kosher, however, inform your host beforehand so an appropriate restaurant can be selected.)


When the food arrives, don't gobble it down. "Mirroring" is often a valuable technique when trying to get someone to be comfortable with you. During an interview meal, this could mean talking and eating at a similar speed, resting your forearms (never elbows!) on the table, or leaning back in your chair, and so forth, in a similar -- but not copycat -- fashion as your host.

At the risk of sounding like your mother, here are some of the basics:

• Your napkin belongs on your lap, not on the table nor tucked into your collar. Should you have to leave the table during the meal, leave the napkin, loosely folded, on your seat or on the table to the left of your plate.

• Use your silverware, not your fingers.

• If you are eating at a restaurant where chopsticks are provided and you are not an expert, ask for a fork!

• The general rule regarding silverware is that you start with the utensil placed on the outside, and work in towards your plate for successive courses. Review your etiquette book or check online beforehand if you are unsure.

• Cut your food into small bites and eat slowly.

• Don't chew with your mouth open or talk with your mouth full.

• Put down your utensils between bites to continue the conversation and pace your eating.

• Don't gesture with your silverware.

• Keep your hair and sleeves out of your plate.

• Don't smoke before, during or after your meal, or anywhere your host can see you.

• Don't play with your hair and don't pick your teeth. (If you've got something stuck in your teeth, excuse yourself and deal with it in the restroom. Do not use your fingernails or a toothpick in public.)


In addition to being on your best behavior, watch what you say. Don't discuss inappropriate, controversial or personal matters; keep the conversation on business or neutral subjects. Don't use slang, profanity or too-casual language, and don't tell off-color or discriminatory jokes. You may, however, use this opportunity, while your host is more relaxed, to inquire about issues at the prospective employer's organization such as firm culture, business development, lateral integration and the like.


Leaving leftover food is wasteful, but it is not recommended to ask for a doggy bag at a business meal. (Note: We are great proponents of doggy bags in other settings, however.) Instead, try to order what you think you can eat. If you are not very hungry or can't manage the large portions many restaurants serve, look to the appetizer/salad sections of the menu. Order an appetizer or two instead of a main meal, just let the waiter know that you want them served at the same time as the other diners receive their entrees. If you just can't finish your meal, don't force yourself. Just quietly place your fork and knife together on the right-hand side of the plate to indicate that you have finished eating and continue with the conversation. Leave your napkin in your lap until everyone is getting up to go.


Remember that your host selected the restaurant. Therefore, do not complain about the food or service, even if it was substandard. Of course, sincere compliments always are appropriate. Don't reach for the check even if it is placed near you, or offer to pay your share. Just let the check sit there, smile and graciously thank your host for the meal. If all goes well, this should be just the first of many occasions to break bread together.


Read other articles in the "Interview Strategies" series:

  1. Interview Strategies: the Basics
  2. Interview Strategies: Telephone Interviews, Without the Hang-Ups
  3. Interview Strategies: Handling Mealtime Interviews With Aplomb
  4. Interview Strategies: Facing and Acing a Panel Interview
  5. Interview Strategies: The Challenges of a Coffee 'Date'
  6. Interview Strategies: Get Ready for Your Video Close-Up
  7. Interview Strategies: Navigating the Question Minefield
  8. Interview Strategies: What Questions Should You Ask?
  9. Interview Strategies: Mind Your Mannerisms
  10. Interview Strategies: Handling a Callback
  11. Interview Strategies: Taking the Show on the Road
  12. Interview Strategies: Be a Powerful Closer
  13. Interview Strategies: A Flawless Follow-Up