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As Times Change, She Returns to the Basics of Dining
By: Jim Hodges

The real reason for the class -- the entre before the entre, if you will -- was offered early to the 20 people sitting at tables in the NACA Room, hard by NASA Langley's cafeteria.

Cheryl Cleghorn.
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Cheryl Cleghorn, outreach and protocol coordinator at NASA Langley, gave a lunch course to employees called, "Outclass the Competition: Dine Like a Diplomat." Credit: NASA/Jim Hodges

"I've been at NASA Langley for more than 30 years," said Cheryl Cleghorn, the center's outreach and protocol coordinator. "I've seen lots of changes in the last five or six years."

Many of them involved money.

"Before, NASA was given its budget and did what it was going to do with it," Cleghorn said. "Now we're collaborating and competing for additional funds for the center."

The key word here is "partnership," and Cleghorn brought together 17 women and three men from Langley who might be called upon to dine with potential partners who could bring business to the center. They were there to learn to "Outclass the Competition: Dine Like a Diplomat."

It's a class Cleghorn has taught Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars (LARSS) and Virginia Aerospace Science and Technology Scholars (VASTS) attendees for three years. When she learned of NASA's push to foster partnerships, it seemed only natural to offer it to the center at large.

Begin with this: It's not just manners. Cleghorn is a Southern lady who was raised with manners, but this is something out of the Protocol School of Washington.

And, certainly, manners are a part of "Outclass the Competition," but it's as much style and grace. And it's not like preparing for a cotillion.

"You can make a first impression in the first five minutes," Cleghorn said. "Technical skills and knowledge account for only 15 percent of the reason you get a job, keep a job, advance in a job. Eighty-five percent is your commitment to people skills."

As an example, she offered a scene from the motion picture "Pretty Woman," in which Julia Roberts dines with three men, struggling with escargot and with which fork to use for which course.

"Don't order something you're not familiar with," Cleghorn advised. "And don't brush off bread."

In the scene, Roberts brushed caviar from toast points.

Bread is broken and buttered, piece by piece as it's eaten. "No butter sandwich," Cleghorn admonished.

And no cell phone at the table. Nor purse on the table. You're there to eat, but also to engage in conversation during a repast that can result in business.

Salt and pepper passed together. "It's like a married couple," Cleghorn said. "You don't divorce the salt and pepper."

Don't overreach. Pass to the right. And on and on, small things that can make a big impression.

Cleghorn brings up eating style: "American" vs. "Continental." American is easier. The fork is used like a shovel. She suggests the continental ­ "you seem more confident and well-traveled" ­ and a four-course luncheon provides hands on training.

Soup was eaten by dipping out from the chin, rather than in.

The salad required the fork in left hand, knife in right, index fingers providing pressure along the handle of each. The knife pushes food onto fork, which remains curved toward the plate as it transports food to mouth.

The entre was handled similarly, though the menu offered a challenge because, while chicken cordon bleu was easy enough, carrying on the back of a fork after pushing it up by a knife takes practice.

Cheesecake for dessert was the reward for an adventure in fine dining.

A few more admonitions:

--"You don't want to eat off somebody else's plate, not at a business luncheon."
--"No doggie bags at a business meal."
--"The proper way to hold a wine glass is by the stem, not by the bowl."
--And, "at a reception, only one thing in hand at a time."

The idea of the last is to carry food or drink in the left hand, keeping the right hand free to shake with people you meet and greet. And to make the meeting easier, put the name tag on your right side, rather than your left. That way people look up the arm to see whose hand they are shaking.

It's a class Cleghorn hopes to teach again, because business will be done over and over by people seeking partners for NASA Langley.

"I have another video of the 'King of Queens' that I show some students," Cleghorn said.

But to this class, finding flaws in a scene of beer and belching would have been a bit too easy.

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman