With easy and inexpensive upgrades, your everyday or special-event buffet can be strictly A-list.
Taking a buffet from boring black and white to dazzling Technicolor can be as simple as putting in place a few effective upgrades that needn't break the bank. Recently, Don King, assistant director of the Shriver Center for Catering and Retail Sales, Miami University, Oxford, OH, put on a fundraising gala with a Wizard of Oz theme. The budget was tight, but hopes were high.
“For me, upgrading a buffet means getting away from ‘Okay, we're going to put a bunch of chafing dishes down and let everyone go through,’” King says. The buffet at the end of the Yellow Brick Road (a runner on the floor) featured savory lollipops and a Scarecrow's Cornfield with arepas (corn cakes) and a pulled-chicken appetizer with Caribbean spices. A rainbow of balloons arched overhead. Some creative details — like a Good Witch bar and a Wicked Witch bar — helped make the atmosphere even more colorful, King added.
A dramatic look can be easy to execute, he says, noting that “just the way you display items on a buffet can have a lot of impact.” Something as basic as a black tablecloth in the right place, or the use of dry ice and water “fog” can set the stage for a romantic, mysterious evening. King has also used tabletops that glow on and off with different colors.
Letting food create its own unique look on a buffet is a “great, inexpensive way to add some wow factor” for Dena Peterson, executive chef at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, TX, a Bon Appétit account. One of Peterson's favorites is an oversized bread display with a variety of breads, rolls, crackers, breadsticks and muffins. “Think baskets and mounds of whole baguettes and whole loaves,” Peterson says.
Buffets at the art museum have also featured twists or surprises, like displaying vegetable crudités grouped together by similar colors or textures, rather than the typical platter of vegetables.
Of course, the food on a good buffet should taste as good as it looks. After the presentation, the great ingredients and items offered should hold their own.
Authentic ingredients are an upgrade that diners really notice these days, says Karen Recker, associate director for Dining and Culinary Support Services at Miami. On the residential dining side, the school's “Wok this Way” concept was recently upgraded with new ingredients for some of the same reasons, adding bamboo shoots, eggplant, fresh ginger, to expand the self-service ingredient line.
The Set Up
Using unique containers and alternatives to chafing dishes can tie into any theme and really create an eye-catching buffet. (see sidebar That's So Unique! p. 28)
Tables are another component where a few extra touches make a big impression. King recently placed old photographs on top of tables, covered by acrylic plastic sheets, for an event celebrating the 200th anniversary of the university. This trick also works with sliced citrus to make a fresh visual impact on any buffet.
The shape and arrangement of the tables themselves is another way to add interest to a buffet. “Play around with different shapes and sizes of tables,” King says.
Jennifer Cano, director of catering at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth agrees. “Instead of using a long rectangular buffet, arrange the tables in the shape of a plus sign, or use several serpentine tables to create an oversized circle,” she suggests. “Even serving traditional foods on a buffet that's shaped in a more contemporary fashion will excite your guests and leave them wondering what's around the next corner.”
Setting everything up in such a way that prevents long lines is key, Cano adds. “Meat carving stations and mashed potato martini bars can be a good idea, but especially for large groups, these can cause long lines and ruin the flow of the party,” she cautions. “Use chef-attendants to pre-plate food or strategically locate toppings for the potatoes so not everyone accesses them at the same time.”
The Interactive Buffet
Sometimes the best feature of a buffet can be the person standing behind it; creating a food-as-entertainment experience for diners, inviting them to participate in ways that go beyond just grabbing their food and moving along.
“Lately we're doing a lot more chef stations,” King says. One of his favorites is a cheese station where the chef can talk to diners, explaining which components they should be looking to taste in the cheese, the order in which the different cheeses should be sampled, and of course, which wine would pair best with each.
Upping the interaction factor, Recker has had great success with an event within a buffet called “Rolling with Sushi.” Two cutting boards along with gloves are set up at a table and each student is walked through the process of rolling maki. The average time to make a roll is five minutes, Recker says, and about 40 students or more are served per meal period. It is so popular, “many students would make more than one roll,” Recker says.
That's So Unique!
Chafing dishes and plain plates are functional, but predictable. Instead, try these ideas in a buffet:
- • Martini glasses for mashed potatoes, soup, beef stroganoff or anything else
- • A rustic setting with stacked bricks instead of a metal frame for a chafing dish
- • Sauce inside a carved pumpkin
- • Sauce inside an oddly shaped vase
- • Salt blocks that can be heated or chilled
- • Funky flea-market trays or platters with a lot of character
- • Paella pans
- • Asian spoons for small bites
- • hot glasses for “shooters” of soup or even milk for milk & cookies
- • Take-out containers
- • Champagne glass layered with noodles
- • An oversized margarita glass
• Chicken Roma
• Spicy Roast Pork with Sweet Potato Polenta
• Cardamom Chicken with Lemon Pear Salsa (specially formulated for steam table)
• Meatballs with Honey-Harissa-Pomegranate Glaze
• Blueberry Almond Crepes
• Lamb Chops in Orange Sauce