The grape tomatoes looked harmless enough, nestled among the lettuce leaves and shredded cabbage on 100 salad plates. Actually, they were land mines, as lethal as the olives lurking nearby, capable of snuffing out the careers of the UC Irvine business students before they had landed their first jobs.
Fortunately, the students were in the presence of etiquette maven Ann Marie Sabath. "Pierce the tomato with your fork so it doesn't explode," she instructed sternly, towering over them and attired for success in a navy dress-and-coat ensemble, low-heeled black pumps and, of course, pearls. "Then slice it into bite-sized pieces."
Spit an olive pit quickly onto your bread plate, she added, and make sure the little guy doesn't ricochet off the crockery toward your prospective boss. Better yet, she declared, if you're invited to lunch as part of a job interview, "eat before you go."
Some of the students at the tables in the University Club laughed. Others squirmed, eyeing the salad and glasses and silverware in front of them with the dread and resolve of medical students facing their first cadaver.
Part stand-up comic, part finger-wagging Miss Manners, Sabath has built a consulting career around the premise that "we have earned the term 'Ugly Americans.' " Her self-assigned job is to improve the odds for businesspeople adrift in a global economy and for foreign business leaders unfamiliar with this country's table manners, such as they are.
Since founding At Ease Inc. in Cincinnati in 1987, Sabath, 57, has taught manners to more than 80,000 students and executives around the world. In addition to her "Put Your Best Fork Forward" seminar -- a 90-minute course that the UC Irvine students took last week -- Sabath conducts sessions on business attire, networking and multicultural etiquette, charging $3,800 to $13,500. She dispenses emergency advice to former clients via a toll-free hotline and over the years has distilled her wisdom into eight books. The latest, just published, is "One Minute Manners: Quick Solutions to the Most Awkward Situations You'll Ever Face at Work."
Sabath, who lives in New York and Florida, isn't surprised that she has been so successful. With rudeness "rampant," she said, business is "great."
Tom Kozicki, director of the career center at UC Irvine's Paul Merage School of Business, hired Sabath last fall after watching a Chinese student grapple with a burrito at lunch. The young man lifted the burrito to his chin as he would a rice bowl and then used a fork to funnel it into his mouth.
Without instruction in manners, Kozicki feared, the student would lose out on a good job. "More and more companies are differentiating on the basis of etiquette and appearance," he said. "EQ is as important as IQ."
At last week's seminar, Payal Bajaj, a 31-year-old native of India, appreciated the cutlery instruction. Sabath leans to the Continental style of dining -- fork in the left hand, knife in the right.
"The way we eat in India is really different," said Bajaj, who hopes to go into corporate finance in the U.S. when she completes her degree.
After a demonstration of proper napkin placement (folded, on the lap, with the fold pointing toward you), and a primer on locating your bread plate and water glass (solids on your left, liquids on the right), bread baskets arrived at the 15 tables.
"Offer the basket with both hands," Sabath directed. Ditto with the water pitcher and salad dressing. "In other cultures it means I'm giving you my full self."
"Do not make a bread-and-butter sandwich!" she barked. "Tear off a bite-sized piece, butter it, enjoy and repeat."
She was cruising the room now, praising one minute, correcting the next.
"Ice is not food. Don't chew it!"
"Oh, and if you're toasting, keep the rim of your glass lower than the rim of the person you're toasting. If you're the person being toasted, don't drink -- it's bad manners."
James Tea, 28, didn't do much toasting during his summer internship with a unit of the accounting firm Deloitte in Costa Mesa. But having taken Sabath's course last year, Tea "definitely felt more comfortable" dining with his mentors, he said, and returned for a refresher last week because "it's hard to remember all the fine points."
Sabath's jokes came at a Don Rickles pace.
"When you sneeze, sneeze in the direction of the person you like the least."
"You are my future. [Beat.] When I take care of you, you'll take care of my pension."
She honed her shtick off American insularity.
"We assume that the way we do things is the best way. But guess what? The world has changed."
An educator by training, Sabath backed into the etiquette business in 1985 after she helped create a board game called "Mind Your Manners." The game led to consulting.
The main course arrived: Chicken breast with sauce, fettuccine and steamed vegetables.
Forks went up -- and just as swiftly went down as Sabath admonished, "Wait until the last person at your table is served before you start to eat -- even if your food is getting cold."
Rest your knife across the top of the plate if you're taking a breather. The serrated side should point toward you, a remnant from the 16th century, she said, when a sharp edge pointing outward could mean an invitation to duel.
Stefany Allongo found Sabath's lunchtime tutorial at South Carolina's Clemson University last year nerve-racking.
"At one point, my peas went flying and hit one of my professors in the head," the 24-year old marketing student recalled. "Luckily, we are a loving group."
The instruction paid off at a lunch during her internship with the League of American Theatres and Producers Inc.
"My boss told me, 'You have great table manners.' "
First impressions matter, noted Jennifer Allyn, managing director of gender retention and advancement at PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York. The firm's recruiters don't generally take prospects to lunch or dinner, but once hired, they can take part in sessions on etiquette and protocol.
"It's pretty important that people are professional," she said.
Dessert was sherbet with a dollop of whipped cream.
"Do not plant your spoon in the scoop like you're conquering Mt. Everest."
Gabriel Rivera, working toward an MBA and an MD, stifled a giggle. He wasn't the only one.
"No one ever invites me to the table," Sabath said, "because they're afraid I'll watch them eat.
"And I do."