The Art of the Buffet: Beauty is in the Eye of the Diner
By Robert Trainor Exec Chef, Hilton | October 28, 2008
In the past, buffets were extraordinary displays of food used during banquets to feed vast numbers of people. The method was quicker and easier than plating a traditional banquet meal. Many culinary teams also viewed the buffet as a great opportunity to express their creativity; chef garde mangers and pastry chefs, along with their teams, really had the opportunity to shine. Not only was there an abundance of food, but the centerpieces and garnishes were considered equally important to the whole buffet.
Changes in the hospitality industry, economy and guest tastes created an emphasis on cost-cutting that led to a creative lull in the world of buffet preparation. Changing times and shrinking culinary staffs greatly influenced buffet presentation. Decorating buffets became almost an after thought; the salt dough sculptures, ice carvings and confectionary displays were slowly disappearing. Today, many hotels cannot afford to carry staff that specialize in the art of garde manger, or maintain their own pastry departments. Buffets are generally used as a tool to expedite service under time constraints. Buffets are very popular in the catering sales arena when hotels are selling complete meeting packages. The majority are served during breakfast and working lunch periods so that meeting attendees can eat and not lose too much time from the real purpose of their day.
But it seems buffets are making a comeback, and one area that is proving particularly popular, and profitable, is the Sunday Brunch. Although Sunday Brunch never really went away, presentation styles and creative buffet cuisine are definitely enjoying a renaissance. Hotels have always recognized Sunday Brunch as a strong profit center and a great opportunity to market their food and beverage departments. Now they are once again delving into the singular opportunities for creativity presented by a buffet, while keeping their new budget-minded focus.
Creative brunch fare definitely leads to increased catering and social business. At the Waldorf=Astoria, brunch has been popular and acclaimed for years. Our culinary team approached the brunch as we would any dinner in the other food and beverage outlets. Every dish was created to stand on its own. Decoration was neither an afterthought nor overwhelming distraction, but a well-thought-out enhancement to the overall presentation of the buffet. The quality of the brunch led to more catering customers requesting buffets for the dinner period. Even in the CMP segment, where a plated dinner would have been possible during the more leisurely dinner time, we found organizers requested dinner buffets because of the variety and quality of foods, as well as the presentation.
Enhancing your buffet presentation can be cost-effective and labor efficient. It is important to establish and follow a theme, and to know as much as possible about the clientele. Try to break away from the two most popular mainstream approaches: multiple levels with tablecloths loosely draped over the risers, and cold foods displayed together, separate from the hot foods all in chaffing dishes lined up like soldiers. These approaches can work well, but do not separate you from the competition. Here are some ideas:
Abandon the straight line buffet