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.

What would Danny Meyer Do?

It is impossible to manage a restaurant anywhere in the United states without the name of Danny Meyer coming up at some point. His name is tossed around in restaurant management meetings on a regular basis. Snippets of his book “Setting the Table” are passed around as internal memos. Most every restaurant I have worked in has, at some point, adopted his five tier approach to operations ( to paraphrase: “first we take care of our staff, second our guests, third our community, fourth our suppliers, fifth our bottom line” ).
Mr. Meyer has become an icon in the Hospitality world along the same lines as Chuck Norris has to  the rest of the world. Every Chuck Norris Fact (“There is no such thing as evolution, only animals Chuck Norris allows to live”) could easily become a Danny Meyer Fact  (“There’s no such thing as good and bad restaurants, only restaurants Danny Meyer allows to live” or “The shortest distance between point A and point B is whichever way Danny Meyer chooses to go”).  In restaurant nerd meetings, anytime you can mention Danny Meyer’s name in conjunction with some new policy you are proposing, it is an automatic benediction.
So, maybe I held off reading his book because I felt so marinated in his philosophies already.  Maybe I realized that all the things done in his name cannot possibly be true.
“Danny Meyer would buy a prime rib from the place next door if a guest wanted one.”

“Expanding into that space is like Danny Meyer starting Shake Shack”

“Danny Meyer would have chased that guest down the block”

“Danny Meyer would have hired that guy”

“Danny Meyer would have fired that guy.”

“Danny Meyer would have found a way to get a rainbow in here.”
So I buckled. I finally checked Setting the Table by Danny Meyer out of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Not surprisingly, a lot of his philosophies make sense.
·      Hire people that exhibit high levels of integrity and hospitality. He calls them “51%-ers”, I call them “high in un-trainables.”
·       In business opportunities, what you say “no” to is just important as what you say “yes” to.
·       Personalize service to each guest; he calls it “collecting dots”, I call it “diagnosing a table.”
·      Mistakes are going to happen, so prepare to deal with them gracefully.
All of these are incredibly applicable to everyday restaurant operations. And it’s nice to see that one of the Greats in the industry today dealt with his fair share of hard knocks on his journey toward the top.
But some of the writing…..I just find myself wondering where his ghostwriter was half the time. If I read one more line that began “Who wrote the rule that….” I would throw the book across the room.
“Who wrote the rule that a museum café has to serve everything from a plastic tray?”
“Who wrote the rule that you can’t serve rustic food on Limoges china?”
 “Who wrote the rule that you can’t have pulled pork with a glass of Chianti classico?”
“Who wrote the rule that presenting your argument in the form a question is always the best way to go? “
Yeesh. Nobody did. Nobody wrote those rules. I think what you’re trying to say is “question everything, even given circumstances.” So please just say that.
Mr. Meyer also tends to gloss over some challenging situations that could have educational potential. A chef that he sends to France for a year of study and preparation for a new restaurant, later drops out of the project just before the restaurant opening. The general manager selected for The Modern leaves just two weeks before the doors open. Mr. Meyer only address these happenings with the platitude that it was a “mutual agreement” that this was “not a right fit.” Which is gracious, sure, but it screams that there is more to the story. If the fit were so wrong, wouldn’t it have been clear earlier? Why would anyone just decide to stop working with one of the most successful restaurateurs in the modern era, especially after he had paid for a year-long trip to France? Something juicy is definitely missing. Maybe I’m an addict for the dramatic, but I’d love to read that book.
All in all though, I know from working in the industry how difficult it is to put theory into practice. Any human endeavor is fraught with the potential for chaos. If Danny Meyer can build systems that bring his philosophies to life in his restaurants, then he definitely has my respect as a restaurateur. His approach to ‘Enlightened Hospitality’ is also inspiring and energizing.
And now that I’ve read his book, I’m better prepared to bulk up my arguments in management meetings with chapter and verse citiations…..