Rob’s Rules: Buff Stuff

I admit it. I am not a fan of buffets. I would much rather be waited on and served a multi-course meal than walk through a line and dish up my own dinner. But as a caterer and event designer, I realize that buffets have an important place in our food service industry and they can be done very well. Buffets are not the most glamorous way to serve, but they are an efficient way to serve food to a large group of people. Many people assume that a buffet line or food station is just like an army chow line.

They rush through grabbing ridiculous amounts of unrelated food and gobble it down as quickly as they can so they can run back for more. As a nation, have we lost all control when it comes to proportions and eating a balanced meal? And have we been seduced by all-you-can-eat? Please remember that buffets are a shared means of serving a meal. How you behave directly affects everyone else.

Rob’s Rule #1 – There is one buffet line for every 50 guests. The only time there can be an exception to this rule is when guest arrival is staggered, such as an open house. We have all been to events where the entire room is dismissed at once to go through the buffet, and it is a nightmare. When buffets are the culinary style, soft openings that allow guests to mingle through gradually are your best bet. Save the speeches and introductions until the guests and noise have died down. And remember, guests are much more receptive to listening when they are not hungry.

Rob’s Rule #2 – Allow two feet of space for every buffet item that you have. Then, when the buffet is laid out, overlap the items and push your negative (empty) space to the ends. Try to create the visual impression of abundance. When guests see just a few items in a pan or on a tray their natural instinct is to take more, thinking there will be none if they come back. This results in shortage and waste.

Rob’s Rule #3 – Every buffet utensil should have a small plate (saucer size) to rest on when not being used. Nothing is more unappealing than using a serving piece that is coated in sauce. Be respectful while going through the buffet line, and after using, place the tong or the bowl of the spoon on the accompanying plate. Remember that everyone in the room is going to be touching these items. If you have a cold or flu, please wear gloves or have someone fix you a plate. This is one of the easiest ways to pass on an illness to a large group of people.

Rob’s Rules #4– Plates are first and flatware is last! The first thing guests need is a plate. Match the plate size to the style of buffet you are having. You would never put a dinner plate on a dessert buffet or a dessert plate on a barbeque dinner buffet. Cocktail buffets with hors d’oeuvre-size items require a smaller plate, or guests will take dinner-size quantities. The eyes are often bigger than the stomach. Flatware and napkins should be at the end of the buffet, not at the beginning. No one wants to juggle a plate and knife and fork while going through the line. Ideally, these are in a napkin rollup at the end of the buffet or placed in small baskets.

Rob’s Rule #5 – Keep hot food hot and cold food cold. Chafing dishes and hot plates are designed to keep food hot. I leave food on a buffet for no longer than two hours, and even less if it is set up outside. In the summer heat, just because the food is in a chafing dish does not mean it can stay out in the sun. Always place buffets in the shade if possible, and use smaller dishes that can be changed out more frequently. Sterno or the heat source cannot rest directly on the linens, as it will burn them or leave a scorch mark. Always rest Sterno on a trivet or small plate. Bowls of ice can keep items chilled and be very attractive. Just remember to order additional ice and be prepared for condensation.

Rob’s Rule #6 – If the item requires a carver or chef in attendance it is not a buffet; it is a station. A buffet and a food station are two very different things. If the culinary item is made to order, it is a station with its own plates, décor, and serving pieces. Examples would be a made-to-order pasta station, carving station, crêpe station or omelette station. You can have both buffets and stations at an event, but don’t bog down the buffet line with items that need specific preparation … put it at its own station.

Rob’s Rule #7 – Successful buffet design is based on the geometric shape of the triangle or pyramid. We stagger the elements, with the highest point or peak being the centerpiece. By varying display height and adding enhancements you can take the presentation to a new level. Keep in mind that less is more with buffet design. By using table linens that enforce the theme, artwork or plants that add a dimensional or organic element and a few props for flavor, you can amp up the presentation significantly. The success of a stellar buffet presentation often depends on the coordination between the catering staff and client in choosing the right rentals and design elements. Culinary stations offer a greater opportunity for visual impact. At an outdoor event they can be themed structures or tents, with ice carvings, floral elements or hanging items. The possibilities are endless.

Rob’s Rule #8 – Right is right. Guests will tend to veer right when approaching the buffet line so if you have a large round buffet, arrange the plates on the left and guests will then travel counterclockwise through the buffet. Buffet signage is very effective in providing instruction without being intrusive. If the arrow points to the right, hopefully the guest will go right. If you list the buffet items, you won’t be asked all night if it is chicken or fish. “What kind of chicken?” “Is it free range chicken?” “Is it organic chicken?” “Are there spices on the chicken?” “Was it a happy chicken?”…

I am frequently appalled by the lack of manners individuals use when going through a buffet. The buffet line is a means to get food. It is there for all the guests, and all the guests must share the utensils and culinary items. The following are pet peeves of mine concerning buffets:

• The buffet line goes in one direction. It starts at the end where the plates are and finishes at the opposite end. Guests look stupid when they go in the wrong direction or decide to skip some items and butt in front of guests to get another. In order for everyone to eat on a timely basis, keep your personal conversations at a minimum and don’t stop and chat while others are waiting behind you. It is perfectly acceptable to say, “It is so good to see you. Let me get through the buffet line and set this plate down and then we can catch up!”

• Never carry your drink through the buffet line. You have to set it down, and it is poor hygiene to do so on a table where everyone gets their food items. GROSS! And it is inevitable that people will spill their coffee or drink in front of everyone while they try to manage a plate and a beverage simultaneously. It really makes the individual look uncoordinated.

• Every food item has a utensil or serving spoon for you to serve yourself. You use this utensil for that food item only. I have seen individuals use a spoon intended for one item and pick up another food item, or use a spoon for mashed potatoes to drizzle on some gravy or sauce … Yuck! Not only is that mixing culinary flavors, it is just plain unsafe with all the food allergies going on today. If you cannot be patient enough for the person in front of you to finish before grasping the next item, you should eat a small snack prior to coming to the event.

• Personal items such as your purse, notebook, briefcase or backpack are never to be placed on a buffet table or station, even for a moment while you need to find a business card or heap your plate full. And used plates, flatware and napkins should NEVER be placed on the buffet table. It is the host’s responsibility to have servers clearing tables or have trays set up for dirty items. Leave your plate where it is if you don’t know what to do with it.

• You should never eat directly from the buffet with your fingers, or nibble as you go down the buffet line. It is disgusting. I have had individuals argue with me that they are not hurting anyone by eating a cube of cheese or one item that they picked up out of a pan. I then point out that the same hand they just touched their mouth with is touching all the serving utensils down the buffet, and they have successfully cross-contaminated everything in the room. If you cannot control yourself enough to wait until you reach the table to eat, call Jenny Craig and get some counseling.

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