Mr. Manners: The Charge Of The Knives (How To Survive A Buffet)
There is something about the buffet that brings out the most interesting in people. Just like our grade school declamation piece, it does remind me of “Charge of the Light Brigade.” Although it would be a stretch to use this piece to describe our culinaria jousts like the Crimean War, it is very much like the battlefront from where I sit (or stand by the buffet line).
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
The doors open to the restaurant, and the siege of Loboutins or Yeezzy’s begin to rape and pillage the food as if it were the days of the apocalypse. There is no difference between coiffed and the capped. The Supremes and Lululemons take volley. It has become the revolution of the knives—and the winner is one who has captured as many crab claws, portions of foie gras, and slabs of prime rib and tails of lobster. At this rate, the ocean would be left to naught, cows extinct and the diners triumphant over the kill.
When we were growing up, we called it the “smorgasbord” from its 16th century Swedish origins—smorgasborde. As explained, this form of dining set out samplings and appetizers in a separate salon before the formal dinner ensued. It became in vogue during the 1939 Worlds Fair, where the Swedes presented their cuisine to an increasingly cosmopolitan traveler. The term buffet refers to sideboard furniture popularized by the French, where food was laid out for dinner guests to partake, or for manservants to rest the platters in between service.
The introduction of the “all-you-can-eat buffet” to the culinary world and its rules of battle are credited to the Las Vegas hoteliers whose casino buffet is the epitome of gastronomic debauchery. For any traveler, Vegas eateries have the most varied and discernable selections in the world. For the carnivorous, the Brazilian “rodizio” is the perfect choice. Meats are served “por quilo” or carved table side on skewers!
In the Philippines, hotel buffets and buffet stand-alone restaurants have become the choice for families or groups who can't quite decide on what cuisine to eat. It simplifies service at tourist hotels, and helps herd guests at peak season. Often, it’s the destination for a special occasion or a gathering. It’s simple, the amount per person is clear (so dividing the bill is easy), and oftentimes it's drinks inclusive. You can choose from the most sublime to the relatively manageable retail-mall spots. The specialty restaurants of hotels—like the Japanese and Chinese outlets also offer good value for a dining experience.
But as I began this, I go to buffets because I like to people watch, and see how people really manage the buffet. Yes, it can really show the innate character of a person. It’s like people go crazy when confronted with the "buffet" of choices. Intermittent fasting practioners, these spots are for you during your feeding window.
Here are some of my observations, and really, how best we can enjoy ourselves without being deemed a glutton. I don’t want to preach to the choir, and for most of us, we all know this, but let's just remember a few tips to make your dinner a time well spent.
Choose a table. Settle down. Check the lay of the land. I notice well coiffed groups of titas often like to sit by the seafood station. They like to amass the succulent lobster tails and the well-cracked crab claws. If that is your thing, and you know the buffet, reserve a table by the station. I was witness to how eight ladies vanquished the ice display upon opening! I think just case the joint and see what you fancy. Buffets aren’t worth it for me, as I don’t really eat that much, but there are certain hotels that the amount is just too good to pass. Although a bit of a splurge, the Cheese and Charcuterie Cave at Sofitel's Spirals, plus the flowing wine, make the buffet experience worth it. I enjoy Shangri-La's Heat selection of great oysters, fine deli meats, and actually good Indian fares.
Make a reservation, and go for first seating. The buffet isn’t a place to be rushed. If you want to enjoy the company, take the first seating. This way you need not hurry between plate changes, and have some meaningful chatter without using your mouth as food grinder. Just like a dinner, graze your way with little bites, sip the libation of your choice, and just enjoy the variety. They won’t kick you out, so take your time.
Don’t be greedy. You aren’t playing Jengga. You aren’t in high school where you had to manage to fit as much as you can on your plate at the Wendy’s salad bar, okay? Take what you like, and come back. If the platters are gone, ask for a refill. Hotels are very diligent about service and will offer to bring to your table at request. Actually, I personally avoid the Japanese station. It is all carbo. Choose items that are more exotic and off-the-beaten path. Haha! I do enjoy the peking duck at the Shang though! Again, manage yourself. Eat what you can, and honestly, there is so much to choose from. Show yourself some dignity.
Don’t sample the merchandise; this is not S&R. Guilty as charged. I catch myself doing this when I am so hungry, and I hate myself for it. Just try and manage your hunger. When picking your food, use the serving utensils, and please don’t eat while lining up to get more food. Take a reasonable serving. Please do not eat while you're in line. This is the most egregious offense I see at buffets (I hate myself for doing it sometimes, I am no saint). I am not even sure where to start here. I mean, unless the buffet is shutting down and you have to cram as much food into your porthole as you can before they start taking chafing dishes away, I cannot think of any reason how this could be considered acceptable behavior. Even within the confines of this proposed situation, I am not certain that eating in line is warranted. Again, guilty.
No return, no exchange. If you did your homework, don’t return food you have taken. If it is on your plate, it is there to stay. You do not have to eat it, but do not, under any circumstances, return it to dishes. This touches upon the importance of the previously mentioned lay of the land.
If you forget, always change plate between standings, and ask the waiters to clear your table. Most establishments, like the hotels, change your cutlery as well. If eating well is the best revenge, then do so with utmost civility. Be kind to your waiters. They are your friends. At the most corpulent moment where you can no longer get up to savor that last portion of foie to call it a day, nice as you are, they will gladly pick up an order for you, and top off your sparkly.
I always emphasize that tipping is very important. If you eat with a special token certificate at Vikings or use the credit card promo at Spirals, remember your table is spending more than what most people make in half a month. So be kind, though service charge is included, wouldn’t it be nice to reward good service that just made your meal?
The buffet is like a conquest. Like the charge of knives, we burrow deep into the ribs of prime meat and savor the succulent juice of oyster victory. Even in war, there are manners. Chivalry, dear readers, should never die.
Another round of belon oysters, right?