Buffet. Such a horrid word. Conjures up a nightmare of pasta salads and wrinkled sandwiches. Of beige people queuing politely for their turn to pass a doily-clad table like mourners waiting to pass a coffin, the silence broken only by ‘no, after you’ and ‘this looks lovely’ (it doesn’t). Clutching their empty plates and badly paper-napkin-wrapped cutlery they wonder, “how will I possibly eat this on my knee? Better not have the Coronation Chicken, one drip and there’ll be a turmeric stain my corduroys for ever.”
Yes, in the queue for a buffet one cannot help but turn into an Alan Bennett character – mundane, slightly melancholy but, ultimately, ludicrous.
I work as a private chef sometimes and when clients ask me for a buffet meal they do wince a little. In fact, one did so only the other week, which is what got me thinking about all this in the first place. Because even though she said the word ‘buffet’, that wasn’t really what she wanted. What she wanted was the benefits of a buffet without all the horrors I’ve described above.
Because there are good things about a buffet. No, really. Guests can decide on their own portion size rather than being bullied into eating more or shamed into less. You can try a much wider variety of things at a buffet than if a meal is plated up. Going back for seconds is fully sanctioned and you can just avoid anything you dislike without causing offence or usually without it even being noticed. Plus, everyone tucking in together is a great ice-breaker. Of course for the cook, a buffet is a whole lot simpler than plating up for a crowd and sends out a far less formal vibe. Yes, if you’ve got a lot of people a buffet is convenient because it feels like you are making life easier for everyone. It’s just that they are, in their soul, awful, life-sapping experiences.
So how could we make a buffet less, well, buffet-like?
For a start, let’s not call it a buffet. The word is too loaded. ‘Self-service’ isn’t much better – too reminiscent of a tacky House of Fraser cafeteria. The Swedish might say smorgasbord but that’s no good either because you’d feel duty bound to feature smoked fish and rye crackers. I don’t have a solution for this, but maybe let’s say ‘sharing table’ or perhaps ‘feast bar’? Basically, let’s agree to say anything but buffet.
Second, a good non-buffet-y feast bar thing (ok, this is too confusing. I’m going to refer to it as a Good Buffet hereafter and hope you know what I mean, ok?); yes, a Good Buffet must have a wide selection of dishes which, and this bit is critical, all work together on the plate. So no onion bhajis in the same buffet as salmon en croute. This is a classic error with doily buffets: just because you’re trying to offer choice doesn’t mean you have to offer EVERY choice. The menu should still have a story, an opinion.
Third, have several platters of the same dish dotted along the table. This will make it feel less like a school dinners queue and will ensure everyone can get to everything without waiting so long they lose the will to live. In fact, with luck it will avoid queuing all together. Hurrah.
Four. Never, ever serve dishes that wilt quickly. You need robust things that will look appetising having been left out for a couple of hours. Which is why sandwiches seem to me like a terrible idea (not to mention a boring one). And don’t dress your salad leaves. Pop a jug of vinaigrette next to the bowl so guests can dress as they go. Nothing says bad buffet like a drowned, limp lettuce.
Finally, do let’s try and make sure everyone can sit down to eat. And not on the arm of a sofa. A good buffet should be something to linger over, pick at and enjoy. There’s nothing worse than your hard-cooked food being hurriedly troughed down by some poor guest precariously perched on a toddler’s chair which faces the wall (believe me, I’ve seen this). It’s a recipe for indigestion if nothing else.
Do all these things and, together, we might just be able to save the buffet. Because, let’s face it, what village fete, church fundraiser, royal wedding or family birthday would be complete without one?
Oh, one last tip. No doilies. Obviously.