Gourmet Holidays - Buffets

by Liz Tarditi

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When Gary suggested that I write an article on some Gourmet Party Tips for the holidays, I was thrilled. What a great idea! But there is so much I can tell you about that I knew it would have to be a two-part series, at the very least. In this first article, I'm going to tell you how high-end hotels and caterers set up, arrange, and organize their buffets so that they seem expensive, but keep the overall costs low. You don't have to have ten tables of food and a carving station to take advantage of the common sense solutions that are widely used in the industry.

Buffets are very popular for entertaining groups. It's exciting to see a beautiful feast displayed along a long table. Because the presentation is so bountiful and rich, people naturally take much more food when they serve themselves in a buffet line than when they sit down to pre-plated food, or pass bowls around a table. Much of the food gets wasted, because guests wanted "just a taste" but took a heaping double serving onto their plate. That's why caterers and hotels charge more for buffet service, instead of plated, sit-down service. People eat a lot more. (From personal experience: I catered a lunch supposedly for 160, but they ate 240 generous "normal portions" of everything, some guests going through the buffet line 3 times!) So, my first tip for your holiday party buffet: if you are really on a tight budget for your event, have a sit-down dinner, or hire a neighbor's kid or a niece or nephew to work as a "server" on the buffet. It seems more elegant to your guests, but you are making sure everyone takes ONE helping of the different foods when they go through the line - especially the more expensive selections - at least until everyone has been through once. Also, be aware of the size of your serving utensils. If you want people to take a 2 oz. portion, don't give them an 8 oz. serving spoon. Simple portion control, disguised brilliantly, saves you money and the worry that you might run out of something.

Most people believe that a buffet is arranged by the order of the courses that they would be served if they were sitting down. But actually the foods are generally arranged from cheapest to most expensive. I'm not saying the foods should ever LOOK cheap - that's the biggest no-no I can think of! The food used in a buffet is not cheap, by any means. I mean "cheapest" and "most expensive" relative to the other foods being served. Imagine a lavish display of breads, and several very delicious condiments (flavored butter, herbed spread, tapenade) that is very large and impressive. It also fills up room on the guests' plates. Next comes a selection of salads, and they fill up more of the plate. Then the vegetables and starches of the meal, and once again, more choices make everyone want to squeeze on "just a taste" of everything. Lots of colors and flavors! Finally, the guests hit the "main course" (the protein) and their plates are already piled high, so when they are served a smaller portion of the Shrimp Stir Fry, or Five Cheese Lasagna, it seems like so much more - after all, the guests had to "find" room for it on their loaded plates!

Your caterer even makes sure that when there is more than one of something - three salads, for instance - the food items are arranged in that grouping so that the least expensive is first, and the most expensive is last. Of course, now that I've shared this little secret with you for planning your party at home, you can use it to your advantage the next time you go out to a hotel or restaurant for a buffet: before you get in line, and without disrupting the other guests, of course, walk along the buffet backwards (from the end to the beginning) to see what they have last in each section. Then you know what's up there worth waiting (and saving space on your plate) for.

Your buffet will have a functional flow to it - like a train along tracks. You don't want your line of people to crash into each other getting to and from the food table, so watch where you'll be setting up. You don't want a guest getting hit in the face by an opening door, or have the food right next to a bathroom, just for safety and sanitation reasons. Placing the food too close to the bar is also a bad idea - your guests will all cram into one small space, and nothing will entice them to spread out.

Decorations on your buffet don't need to be elaborate or expensive. Foods can be used as decorations, and in fact, are the MOST correct things to use because they are edible: a collection of squashes and gourds, scattered nuts in their shells, fruit, even ornaments that you mold out of salt dough, dry, and paint are very desirable. (I've made life-sized crabs, star fish, angel fish and even an octopus for a seafood buffet display before.) Or use what you already have: houseplants, tea light candles, pretty snowflakes cut from silver paper, spray-painted pinecones, flower petals, greens, confetti, curled ribbons, even brightly colored leaves and pebbles can decorate a table. An old mirror cleaned with vinegar can become a fabulous platter for a cheese or dessert display, or just beautifully reflect a collection of candles. Think height, not just colors and shapes, when choosing things to decorate the buffet. Anything can be used to give height to the buffet. A potted tree makes a great centerpiece, and raises your "height" 4 feet! Use fabric to bunch, crunch and cover risers to make your buffet more interesting. Make risers using upside down pots, books, or sturdy boxes hidden under fabric to support serving dishes (be careful that they are solid and secure!), and other decorations. You can rent almost any color tablecloth and napkins for the same price as white, and you save yourself the time & hassle of washing and ironing. Why not order an extra tablecloth for decorating the table, after it's covered? or use fabric found in the local thrift store, especially old prom and bridesmaids dresses - you may hate the dress, but how would the skirt material look draped as part of a "tablescape" with soft lights reflecting it's sheen? Just don't place candles where they can catch fire to someone's sleeve!

With all of the fun things you can do to decorate the buffet, it's easy to overdo it and get too fussy. Never underestimate the importance of free space. Sometimes people need to re-adjust their plate grip, or put a drink down to serve themselves food. It helps avoid accidents, and makes for a more professional look, to keep your table from being overcrowded. Remember that the food is the focus and should be the first thing that catches the guests' eyes, not the decorations. It has it's own colors, and "theme" that you want to compliment, not detract from. And, if you have a server, they need to be able to reach across the table to place the food on the guest's plate. Don't make their job impossible with overcrowded decorations.

Make sure all of your serving dishes and decorations fit safely and securely onto your table before the party. Guests can get badly injured from tipped over warming servers spilling hot liquids, falling serving forks, or knocked-over candles that were precariously "balanced" between two tables or on a weak riser. The table will get bumped a lot, so arrange things securely in advance.

You don't need to put out all the food you made all at once - just some of everything, and as it runs low, add more into the serving bowl. This tip isn't just to keep up appearances. If something spills, or someone sneezes into a dish (it happens) the food you have in reserve is emergency backup. In a professional setting, we don't re-use food once it is placed on a buffet, because of all the people it is "exposed" to. So we make up the original display, and then periodically replenish it. That way there won't be as much food thrown away when the guests appetites are satisfied. Unserved leftovers were kept fresh and wholesome in the kitchen. (But were available just in case!)

Finally, during your party, make sure you patrol your area every ten minutes or so, to check to see if you need to replenish a food item that's running low and collect trash people leave behind. Trash on the buffet? Yes. It's disgusting. I know none of the genteel readers of the Dollar Stretcher would ever think about doing this, so I'll explain: You spend weeks planning the buffet, preparing all the food, and then arranging it to impress and delight your company, only to have some mouth-breathing, raised-in-a-barn cretin leave toothpicks, used cocktail napkins, shrimp tails, crab claws, drips of sauce, and half-eaten plates all over the table. For everyone to see. The least they could do is try to hide it in a nearby potted plant. In a professional setting, we try to make sure that the last person in line's experience through the buffet is as pleasant and fresh as the first person's. Servers help - people are less apt to leave refuse behind when they can get "caught". But since my nice readers would never know about this, I thought I should mention it.

My next article will be on planning out your food quantities for your holiday parties; how many hors d'oeuvres should you have for each person, how to plan a party menu, and how to decide if you can do it yourself, or if you need professional party help. You can read it at www.stretcher.com/stories/99/991213c.cfm.

Chef Liz Tarditi is the President and Executive Chef of Today's Gourmet, a personal chef service based in Kirkland, Washington which provides delicious, home-cooked gourmet meals everyday for busy clients all over the Eastside. (c) 1999 Liz Tarditi

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