Hospitality @ Home: Buffet Set Up

With Turkey Day around the corner, here are some things to help you serve up your buffet with ease and style.

1. How many people will be at your party? More than 10 people, and you’ll want to be sure that you set your buffet so it can operate from both sides. For small gatherings “buffets” can be set on your stovetop in covered pots so that hot food can keep warm over a low flame, with plates and cutlery on a nearby countertop.

2. Do dishes need to stay hot? You can keep dishes warm by placing hot food on hot plates and keeping them covered. Soups and melty dips can be set in fondue pots over a sterno flame, or in crockpots to keep warm. Get your surge protector on and be sure to tape or otherwise secure loose cords so guests don’t trip over them.

3. Consider the silverware. If you are placing the silverware on the buffet, place it at the front of the buffet, rolled tightly in a roll up that can easily be held or even tucked in a pocket. But if it is possible, it is more efficient to pre-set the cutlery and napkins at individual seats at the non-buffet tables.

4. Consider the sauces. Place saucers beside serving dishes as a landing spot for spoons/ servingware so the tablecloth does not become covered in food debris.

5. Prevent traffic jams. Place canapes and beverages at different locations (if you have the room) to prevent bottlenecks. At a bare minimum, set your beverages on a separate table across the room from the food.

6. Be cagey. If you are on a budget, place plentiful, less expensive dishes at the beginning of the buffet and the more expensive, scarcer items at the end. As in, put your dinner rolls, and mashed potatoes at the beginning, the steak and shrimp at the end.

7. Be fancy. Create levels. By skewering meatballs or other small bites with bamboo sticks, or placing dishes with a low profile (like cut sushi rolls, tortillas, cookies) on literal pedestals. If you don’t have a plethora of cake stands, you can create levels by placing plates on overturned teacups or mason jars. Or if that’s not your aesthetic, you can place a row of sturdy boxes down the center of your buffet table, cover them with linens and tuck your serving plates around and on top of them. If you want to be extra opulent, you can fill the space between the plates with seasonal fruits, vegetables, and sturdy kale leaves to completely cover the fabric components, creating a “cascading cornucopia” effect.

Restaurant 101: Carrying Plates

November 6th

Here’s another tip from serving school: how to carry multiple plates. This is just the basic 2-3-4 plate carries. I am deeply in awe of diner servers in fast-paced joints that can stack seven chicken-fried steak dinners, but I know that skill can only come from years of experience with the weight and balance of a particular set of dishes, acclimation to their temperatures, and the sure-footedness that comes from knowing a restaurant dining room as well as one’s own home.

The multiple plate carry is useful for dinner parties, or for your first job in a restaurant. The four plate carry is also ideal for transporting plates of birthday cake from a conference room to your office mates, should the occassion arise 😉

Restaurant 101: Maitre’ d

Maitre d’

(May-truh dee)

From the French maitre d’ hotel, which means, essentially, ‘Master of the House.’ Typically this title is unisex, applying to men or women in the position, as the feminized “Mistress of the house” has, *ahem*, un-egalitarian connotations.

In the restaurant, the ‘House’ has two sides; the Front of House and the Back of House. The Front of House encompasses the areas that customers interact with, the dining room, the hallways, washrooms, etc. It also contains the liminal spaces of the phone lines and reservation system. The Front of House can extend to Valet service, coatcheck in a complex fine dining establishment.

The Maitre D is the Master of the Front of House. This seemingly simple definition can be applied in multiple ways in various dining rooms. In some restaurants the Maitre D is the de facto manager. She may be responsible for overseeing staff assignments, monitoring service, coordinating arrangements with the kitchen, bar, as well as handling any employee issues that arise in the course of a service. The de facto manager style Maitre D will also be responsible for closing out the days’ cash/ credit card transactions, locking up the restaurant, etc.

Some people with the title Maitre D further act as the sommelier if the restaurant does not have one on staff.

In a fine dining operation with the full coterie of roles from Bread Server to Service Captain, however, the Maitre D may act more as the head waiter and lead host, greeting guests at the door, remembering repeat customers, making everyone feel welcome, and waiting on certain VIP tables himself.

Wherever you find one, however, the Maitre D is a good friend to have in the dining room. He is the best person to make special requests from (flowers to arrive at your table, a bottle of champagne waiting for you, a certain table for an important meal, or menus without prices listed on them when you are treating guests and want them to feel welcome to order anything). It is not out of place to offer a gratuity to a Headwaiter style Maitre D who has taken special care of you. But as some Maitre D’s are actually salaried managers and precluded from accepting tips, do not be surprised if a tip is rebuffed with a polite “Thank you, but a tip is not necessary.” If a Maitre D turns down a gratuity, it would be rude to continue to offer one.

Hospitality @ Home: Home Party Set Up with Bar

At the very least, separate the bar/ beverage area from the food area. Browsing a buffet is a different speed than dashing off a martini or pouring a glass of Chianti. Plus beverage areas involve sloshing, splashing, ice, lemon wedges, and all manner of things that you wish to keep cold while you want to keep food room-temperature-to-hot. Separate the bar from the food.

If you have the room, separate the canapes and desserts from the main food area especially if your party is more of a cocktail reception affair. Spreading the different courses through the space encourages mingling with minimal effort.

But, back to the bar.

A good self-serve bar needs:

Glasses that match the offerings (wine glasses, rocks glasses, highballs, cocktail glasses, etc.)

Ice

Cocktail shakers

Garnishes

Towels

Wine

Spirits

Mixers

Bottle opener

Wine key

If you are serving cocktails, set your bar area near a sink so that cocktail shaker ice can be easily poured away. Alternately you can pre-mix a batch of a signature cocktail (Moscow Mules, Bloody Marys, Gold Rushes, Margaritas, Mojitos, Brambles, and Smashes all work beautifully), pour into a pitcher and set beside a serving a note (“Pour over ice and add a squeeze of lime”, etc.)

If you are setting a full service bar for cocktail service, place like things with like– wine with wine, spirits with spirits, mixers with mixers, garnishes with garnishes, tools with other tools. Corral your tools (bar spoons, wine key, bottle opener) to a small dish or tray so it is clear where to look for them.

In addition to an ice bucket, it is a good idea to provide a small, elegant receptacle for bottle caps, corks, wine wrapping.

Return to the bar area periodically to tidy up, refresh ice, empty the debris bin and stock with fresh glasses.

Hospitality @ Home: Dinner Party Set Up Timeline

As the weather grows colder (hopefully? In most places, though not California, *deep sigh*) we all find our revels moving indoors. When you find yourself in the mood for throwing a dinner party, as I often do, here’s a rough timeline.

Two Weeks (yes, I said Two. As in 2, go with it) Before Your Party

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither should your dinner party, ok?

– Reach out to your guests. Send em a text. Create a facebook event. Write an email. Or make everyone feel like Queen Victoria by sending them a handwritten invitation, and request RSVP’s.

One Week before your party,

– You should have heard from your invitees, but if you haven’t, reach out to the stragglers.

– As your guests joyously reply that they cannot wait to attend your fete, be sure to ask them if they have any dietary restrictions or food allergies.

– Plan your menu. Choose dishes that can be cooked a day or two ahead, or dishes that come together quickly on the day. Soups make a great first course (and can be made a day ahead), Braised meats can be cooked the day before as an entree, panna cotta, mousse cakes, or enriched cakes like date or almond cakes hold well in the freezer and thaw quickly on the day.

But be aware of your limitations while menu planning. If you and your guests aren’t big on the sweets, why not offer a cheese plate as the dessert course. Alternately, if you are possession of a sweet tooth, but you are a disaster with pastry, dessert is one of the easiest things to buy in.

– Place any necessary orders. With the butcher or the local bakery for that 3-pound snapper or leg of lamb, or mirror glaze mousse cake.

2 days before

– buy groceries.

– prepare dessert (if you are cooking one. Picking one up on the day is certainly an option)- an enriched cake like a date cake or an almond cake can hold up well to freezing. Panna cotta or creme brulee need a long rest in refrigeration, and will be fine for 48 hours.

– deep clean areas guests will spend the most time in. A few toys and coasters laying around are nothing to worry over. This is the foundational layer pass, the dusting the top of the bookshelves, the vacuuming under the sofa, the discarding of the pile of magazines that have collected under the coffee table.

– re-arrange any furniture that needs to re-arranged.

1 day before

– Braise/ roast/ prepare mis en place

– make ice

– polish your glassware and silverware

– Clean and stock the bathroom that your guests will use on the night. Sometimes this is your only bathroom. In which case take this time to remove or stash any cosmetics, medications, etc, that you don’t want anyone to see. Also, remove any towels that you wouldn’t want guests to dry their hands on. It’s a nice touch to have a stain removing pen or stain removing wipes placed in a dish on the countertop, too. It’s not a party until someone spills red wine on their white shirt.

6 hours before

– Pull out any dishes that need to thaw or come to room temperature

– Do a final surface sweep of any clutter that would otherwise embarrass you in the guest areas. Set stacks of coasters or cocktail napkins on the corner of any surfaces where your guests might set a drink down.

– have a stack of clean absorbent towels (paper is fine if that is all you have) stashed in a discreet place near the dinner table and the bar so they are easily at hand for any (inevitable) spills.

– Arrange any last minute mis-en-place. If your roast is finished with a last minute pan sauce, chop the shallots and pre-measure wine for it. If your first course is a salad, wash the greens and prepare the dressing now so all you need to do is toss it together just before serving (though a hardy green like Kale can handle 6 hours in a citrusy dressing, so you can put it together well ahead….. and now you know why you see kale salads on so many restaurant menus….)

– Set table. Or if you have a partner or other household minions, this is a good task for them.

2 hours before

– Get dressed in your dinner outfit (don’t be a hero, put an apron over your couture).

– Set your lighting. Will there be candles over a zillion surfaces? Lay them out now.

– Put on music.

– Set out canapes and arrange bar, in case any guests wander in early.

– Set up coffee/ tea tray for after dinner and set aside.

1 hour before

-Whip cream for dessert- if needed.

-Put finishing touches on any dishes that need them. Wrap platters with foil and hold them in a warm (not hot!) oven until you are ready to bring them to the table.

-Pour yourself a glass of wine.

-Take the first bite of your canapes so that when your guests arrive, no one will be too self-conscious to take the first bite. Seriously. Thats just being a good host.

Restaurant Etiquette: Sending Back a Dish

To err is human, and when you are dealing with hundreds of plates in the course of an evening, there is always a chance that a mistake will be made, or a dish will fall short.

If there is something wrong with your meal, do not hesitate to politely send it back. Restaurants want their guests to be happy, and every proprietor I know would prefer the opportunity to correct an error in the moment, rather than have a guest leave their dining room dissatisfied.

I know, however, that there are horrible urban legends about servers spitting in plates of unsuspecting diners that send things back to the kitchen. All I can say to allay that fear is that in my thirteen years working in hospitality, I have never seen anyone do this, and remind you, dear reader, that even in the myth, the server-saliva garnish tends to only be applied to customers who are rude and uncouth (Though if you do have any suspicion that a hospitality worker has interfered with your food or beverage in any way, I would encourage you to patronize an alternate establishment).

Should you find yourself in the position of needing to send a dish back to the kitchen, here are some quick tips to smooth what can be an awkward situation:

1 Be polite. Please and thank you go a long way.

2 Be clear in your desire about what would be a satisfying solution. Would you like the steak to simply be cooked a bit longer? Or is the salmon over cooked to the point of inedibility and a fresh filet is the only thing that will correct the error? Being clear from the beginning will help the staff correct the error most efficiently. If the dish is, according to the staff, actually prepared correctly and you simply do not care for it, do yourself a favor and order a different dish to replace it. There is no way to correct a braise once it is out of the oven, or take the minced onions out of the meatloaf.

3 Alert a server or staff member as soon as possible so the error can be corrected quickly.

4 If the dish takes a while to cook, a seasoned manager or server will ask if you would like to enjoy the side items while the protein is cooking, or they may bring you a complimentary sip of soup or a side salad. If these things are not automatically offered, it is certainly reasonable to request something of the sort, as having something in front of you will help any guests you are dining with feel less self-conscious about enjoying their meals while you wait.