Floating somewhere in hell, perhaps being roasted over a hellish grill, is the soul of the first person who thought that buffet food service was a good idea. Even if this person is not in hell, the tens of thousands of chefs who rise in the middle of the night to prepare hotel breakfast buffets can’t be in happy space.
Hotel guests who would usually breakfast on just a cup of coffee and slice of toast, or an apple, or perhaps even a chocolate bar, will stuff their bodies with enough calories to feed an Ethiopian family for a week.
No comment on breakfast buffets is complete without mention – no, condemnation in the strongest terms – of the people who raid the buffet to make the sandwiches that will see them through lunch. Just this morning I watched a family pack an entire picnic!
I will concede that breakfast buffets at smart hotels – especially in Asia – can be spectacular, but more in the sense of over-the-top excess than the display of culinary genius.
In my opinion, the sole redeeming feature of a breakfast buffet is that it puts me in control of what I’m eating. I can choose what I want to eat, and in what quantity.
Buffets, of course, are also a mainstay of event catering, where people’s worst gluttonous excesses are in full force. The first few guests will inevitably grab all the good bits out of the salad (i.e. avocado), leaving just the leaves for the rest of the guests. Or, the same person who would normally eat two or three lamb chops at home, piles his plate with six or seven. Most regularly, one sees overloaded plates with fish next to meat next to chicken; a wide assortment of flavours that are not necessarily complementary.
Of course, if people served themselves with some dignity there would be plenty to go around. Rational, well-off people become locusts in the presence of a buffet.
I am sure there are top-class chefs putting on high quality buffets, but that doesn’t change the behaviour of the guests. And, I can’t imagine there are many chefs who have the same love for their buffet menu as they have for their a la carte menu.
Given the queues that we find ourselves in so often, I’m amazed at people’s tolerance of buffet queues. A bank or post office queue is not something with a finite end, like an aircraft departure for instance. One just has to stand in line along with everyone else and suck it up. On the other hand, instead of relaxing at the table, awaiting the dissipation of the queue, people jump up en masse the minute the buffet is declared open.
Dishes intended to be served cold or at room temperature can generally survive the buffet experience. However, hot food is often not quite hot enough, and it suffers from being kept at temperature for too long. It’s just not possible to simultaneously keep meat pink and hot, because it’s going to carry on cooking, ending that deathly shade of grey so often spied on carveries. Fish must finish cooking as it’s being carried to the table; it doesn’t tolerate being kept hot.
Aside from nutrition, the main reason for eating is to rejoice in the deliciousness of the dish, the celebration of great ingredients prepared with love and respect. Buffets are not the ideal space for doing this.
It’s no surprise that Michelin-starred restaurants do not offer buffets (there is a breakfast buffet in the one-star La Cuisine restaurant in the Hotel Le Royal Monceau, but I venture that the star was awarded for their a la carte lunch or dinner service).