The Buffet Blog: All You Can Read
The word buffet can conjure up negative images of cafeteria-style food – homogenous
and sometimes unidentifiable brown foods that may have started out crispy, but have
long since softened from self-steaming. Buffet has also become synonymous with the
term ‘all you can eat’.
Let’s set the record straight – there’s a BIG difference between an all-you-can-eat
smorgasbord and a buffet.
The term buffet originally referred to the sideboard furniture where the food was served
from, but eventually became applied to the serving format. The word buffet became
popular in the English-speaking world in the second half of the 20th century after the
Swedes had popularized the smorgasbord in New York.
Simply put, a buffet is a meal where guests serve themselves. Buffets can range from
very simple sandwich platters to elaborate, multi-tiered seafood displays and ‘a al
minute’ dishes provided by chefs (i.e.: an omelet station).
A buffet meal can be a class act; the way it is created, displayed and managed.
A buffet is typically a set amount of food created for a set amount of guests; the kitchen
knows ahead of time the number of guests attending and plans accordingly. When a
buffet of this nature is created, the menu is (or should try to be) complementary,
meaning the dishes make sense when served with each other.
For example, when I’m creating a buffet menu, I think about the comparative flavours
and try to match them. I won’t put a caprese salad on the menu and then feature a
masala-style Indian chicken – those flavours don’t make sense to me when combined
on your plate (unless of course you’re doing a roaming hors d’oeuvres menu, but that is
another blog altogether J). I like to think about each item on your plate and how I’d like
the flavours to marry and complement, not clash or overwhelm. A buffet that features
lemongrass-Thai basil mussels, prime rib, mashed potatoes and lasagna doesn’t make
sense to me because I imagine all those items ON YOUR PLATE – how can you enjoy
any one of those items when they are all merging into each other in a great big mess of
flavours and textures?
When we layout a buffet, our objective is to give a sense of abundance and bounty, we
want it to look appealing. From varying the height of different dishes, to draping the
tables in different fabric to featuring wood, stone and glass as our serving vessels, the
objective is to make the table beautiful and appealing.
Buffet cooking is quite different from a la minute cooking; the items featured on the
menu must be compatible with volume cooking and in most cases, holding. When a
group of 200 has scheduled a meal for 6 p.m. but the speeches go long and dinner has
to hold until 6:45 p.m. the menu items must be able to accommodate this and still taste
delicious and look delicious. Rarely do we feature chicken breast on a buffet menu,
simply because the risk for that particular item to dry out is high. We tend to feature
chicken thighs because they are actually better with longer cooking and there is little
chance of them drying out. We also brine all of our meat, ensuring not only flavour, but
also additional moisture.
The single biggest challenge of a buffet is estimating the amount each person will take.
Some people will take a triple portion of potatoes, some people will take none. We tend
to calculate our amounts and then add 20-30 portions for the unexpected.
Conversely, an all-you-can eat states the aim: supply as much food as wanted for a set
price. It is assumed that guests will hit that food line several times. Often, the objective
is to provide many different options, from pasta to sushi to deep fried spring rolls. This
is very, very different from what most catering companies are trying to provide.
I love to switch our service styles around. I love building plates to order and I love
building sumptuous family-style platters. But buffets present a particular challenge that I
really enjoy – and that is exceeding people’s expectations of what a buffet is.
Research by Lee Everson