Is this the end of the buffet?

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The writer Joel Golby has been obsessed with buffets since he was a kid. But in a post-Covid world, will we see the end of helping yourself?

In Liverpool, before the pandemic, I went to a hotel breakfast buffet. I always fret about the breakfast buffet, mainly about what to wear, because it’s one of those weird places where the full 7am suit-and-tie crowd sit elbow-to-elbow with people yawning in frayed jogging bottoms and thin hotel slippers. So anyway, I found my hotel slippers, rubbed a small mark off my jogging bottoms, and wound through the carpeted hallways, down the silent pinging elevator and through one of those weird hotel open spaces where a corridor is intersected with three small sofas arranged around a table with flowers on that nobody has ever sat at in history, which bloomed out into the huge, heaving, wall-to-wall meat market that was the Liverpool Hilton Breakfast Buffet. That’s where I saw a man put four hash browns and a single crumpet into a bowl and eat it.

My theory with breakfast buffets, more than any other buffet at any other time, is that they reveal the deepest and darkest crevices of you, your true and real nature. Take my usual breakfast buffet order, for example. I linger near the fruit salads, the platters of melon, the pile of ice studded with single-serve yogurts, and maybe take a small bowl of granola with arctic milk (I do not eat porridge from breakfast buffets, because porridge from breakfast buffets has the consistency and, I imagine, flavour, of the limp and grey snot of the medically dying). I’ll sit and eat this healthy meal with a thimble-sized glass of juice. After a beat, I’ll get up and just eat an entire fry-up. And a small plate of four miniature croissants. Then, often as a sort of pudding course, just some continental-style slices of ham and cheese, arranged plainly on a plate. Some compulsion will drive my body to do two things: drink four or five cups of coffee, Just Because It’s There; and, also, steal a small napkin of snacks to “enjoy later”.

This is my routine at every breakfast buffet I have ever been to. Do you not understand? Do you not see the monster in me, poking out? I sit and pretend I am a healthy person wishing to live a calm and structured life (melon with yogurt, some semi-healthy granola). And then a growl within me emerges, and immediately reverses that, and takes on close to two grands’ worth of calories in a 15-minute interval (the fry-up situation, the raw, plain slices of cheese). I dread to think what inner turmoil the man three tables over from me eating hash browns, plain, and a single crumpet, also plain, out of a bowl, psychotically, is trying to eat over and hide. What happened to him the day before he ate a dry unbuttered crumpet out of a bowl? How did the day go after he ate four unsalted browns alongside them? Does he prescribe to a theory that the only possible method of day-to-day happiness is to start your morning on the worst possible note, because it can only get better from there? Or was his mind fractured in two by some great unseen trauma? We will never know. Somewhere between my third and fourth coffee, he disappeared. And I walked away with three mini croissants in one pocket and two pains au chocolat in the other.

I have been obsessed with buffets since I was young, because my mother, who died and then we had a buffet at her funeral, was known to “put on a good spread”. A Good Spread and the ability to Put One On is a particular niche point of pride among a certain group of northern women, who delight in being able to feed and satiate a room of around 20 to 35 pop-ins with nothing more than a £20 note, a friend who has a car with an especially big boot, two trips to town (one to Iceland, one to Tesco) and about three hours spent frantic in a kitchen, pouring out bowls of crisps. You could put a buffet on, and I could, but people wouldn’t coo over it, they wouldn’t marvel: they wouldn’t hold a honey-mustard chipolata up sticky and gleaming to the light and ask us where we got them from. There are buffets, the genre, and there are buffets, the art, and in that regard my mother was Michelangelo, was Da Vinci.

Every year my aunt holds her birthday party at the same place, Cosmo Authentic World Kitchen buffet in Wolverhampton, because the easiest way to please a group of people spanning the gender and generation gap is to offer them every single food on the planet, at once. Watching people load up plates at the Cosmo Authentic World Kitchen is more fascinating that wildlife documentaries, for me: the place ostensibly specialises in pan-Asian cuisine, so offers noodle dishes and fresh-seared stir-fries and then, as you move along around the conveyer-belt-style self-serve, curries and naans blistered seconds earlier in the tandoor. Abruptly there is a pizza hub. And then, for some reason, an entire area where you can get a roast dinner. The “American-style” section is pored over mostly by children, because it has all the usual child-friendly foods (chicken dippers and poppers, waffles and fries, waffle-fries, and beans and chicken dinosaurs and barbecue-sticky meat) and me, because I love all that, too. But also I am a gourmand, so I have my chicken tenders gracefully ladled over a mountain of chow mein, with some samosas poked in like handkerchiefs on the side. For sauce I can choose from sriracha, or gravy, or just a huge pile of kebab-shop garlic mayo. Depending on how much space is left on the plate (and whether the structural integrity of the food tower demands the gluey reinforcement of a well-emulsified sauce), I may opt for all three.

Cosmo Authentic World Kitchen makes me a pig, is what I’m saying, and a frenzied one at that. There is a strict two-hour time limit to your seating, meaning it’s wise to get there around 15 minutes before your booking just to actually talk to the people you’re having dinner with (once you sit, everyone immediately and wordlessly springs up to grab a small white plate and get heaping; someone, usually my aunt, is left guarding everyone’s coats, and placing the drinks order). At no point in the Cosmo Authentic World Kitchen food experience are you told that two hours to eat is a phenomenally long period of time. For some reason the time limit is set to you like a challenge: you have two hours, sir. If you leave here without doing at least two plates’ worth of mains and one plates’ worth of pudding then you’re going to feel like a failure. My blood courses with salt. My plate lies brown with the slick grease of the remains of my chow mein. My stomach is bloated with reconstituted chicken. I have gravy on at least two items of my clothing. I am sweating and I am tired and I am red. But am I going to get up and fill a plate with ice-cream, unbranded Smarties and a shot of lemon posset? That you even have to ask is offensive to me. If the man comes round while I’m up, I’ll have a Carlsberg.

But I think the real core of buffet, and what makes it such a cherished and magical treat, is the way it inverts the eating experience. When you go to a restaurant you are handed a menu and asked to read and imagine what you might eat. The Buffet attacks you with visual stimuli and asks you to reach into the outer reaches of your own hunger. The Menu is calm and composed and the pricing is there, by the side, in plain black-and-white. The Buffet asks you to pay before you even look at the food. You are not given a knife and fork: you are given tongs. You are given a small lifting device to ease out a plump square of lasagne. You are given a whole salad bar to totally ignore. You are given a glass and told you can fill it, forever, with Coke. The Buffet subverts anticipation by overwhelming you with choice. The Menu forces your greed through a proxy, a waiter or waitress. And when it comes down to it, the key difference is this: while the Menu asks you to eat for pleasure, the Buffet asks you to eat your fill to relieve the bin.

Looking fondly back, I have more vivid memories of buffets than a lot of the more expensive and Michelin-starred meals of my life. There was my ninth birthday party, held at the football stadium near my house, where I had a bowl full of cocktail sausages and nothing else; a 30th birthday party where I didn’t really know anyone so lingered in the kitchen while the host panic-cooked supermarket quiches until I’d made enough friends to have fun. Yes, Sushi Samba on the 39th floor was a memorable dining experience with a glittering view of the city below. But I can’t eat chow mein there mixed with gravy, can I? Yes, the Hand & Flowers in Marlow is more than worth its two Michelin stars. But you can’t eat a cheesecake there from the middle outwards, gnawing at the centre of it, like an apple feeding a worm. Sitting down and unpeeling three Tunnock’s teacakes and a handful of cashews. Mixing leftover Fanta with Coke with Tesco “Dr Fizz”. Nobu might have black cod, but it doesn’t have that.

The new world might not have it, either, if we all sit down and be honest. Science is preoccupied enough right now, and taking academics away from researching world- saving vaccines to instead develop a cough guard big enough and robust enough to stop a toddler from infecting a communal bowl of chipsticks seems like a waste of money and time. Buffets are a good thing socially (they help bring people together!) but a bad thing pandemically (they let people repeatedly dip the same crisp into a shared pot of hummus!) and by that respect, the UN should really look into making them an international crime. It’s hard to know what the world will ever look like post-Covid, but right now it doesn’t feel like it involves a lot of sausage roll sharing platters. One day we will look at a cheese hedgehog the same way we look at opium dens and fax machines: history’s follies, from a world that didn’t know better.

I’ll be sad when they’re gone. Buffets are inelegant and they are kitsch, but they take the seriousness out of eating – the soup spoon affectation of fine dining replaced by balancing a paper plate full of ham sandwiches on your lap while someone’s strange niece goes round the room pouring out wine – and make sharing a gateau with 20 friends and neighbours feel like a notable event. Buffets have propped up weddings and been the high points of funerals. Buffets cater children’s birthday parties and stadium director’s boxes. I’ve had entire holidays where the highlight was going to the hotel buffet and watching a man make me an omelette while I picked yogurts out of a delicate mountain of ice. Buffets pulse through every facet of life, and if they go we’ll miss them. But then I may be being premature: if you’ve ever hosted a buffet, you’ll know those long grey days afterwards – where no matter how many leftovers you eat, you still somehow have 50 spring rolls in the fridge, wrapped under heavy wads of clingfilm – and take them as proof that buffets, at their core, are difficult to kill. When all this is over I’m having you all round for a spread. I’ll mix the crisps up in those nice bowls especially.

In the Kitchen is published by Daunt Books, 8 October (£9.99). Pre-order at dauntbooks.co.uk/shop/books/in-the-kitchen/

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