“Ay, hindi masarap.”, my godmother exclaimed, curling her lip in annoyance as she dumped half a shrimp on the rim of her plate. “Here, try this”, as she tossed another shrimp my way, “tell me what you think.” I diligently shelled it and took a bite, and I understood what she meant. The shrimp might have been chunky and visually appealing, but on the inside, it was dry, bland, and had a boring mouthfeel. I couldn’t help but remember how succulent and juicy-sweet my grandaunts’ broiled shrimps were back home during fiesta time, and decided this shrimp was not worth the price of Php1,500 a head.
(For the curious, the secret is in the Sprite, butter, and salt-n-pepper.)
That sinking feeling of a reluctant thought settled into my stomach, right alongside the lamb and grilled mustard fish and salmon sashimi. Was this the current state of buffets? I contemplated this question with a very quiet shudder. I stared down the long, long, long row of food trays, warmers, and fanciful arrangements. True, the dishes on display enticed the senses with the heat, sizzle, presentation, selection, and much, much more, but the flavors, freshness, and eating experience left much to be desired.
And goodness! All. That. Food.
Was this kind of buffet experience truly worth the price of admission?
Now, before you tut-tut me, hear me out. I am not decrying buffets, nor calling an abolition on eat-all-you-cans. I mean, I love food. I love to eat. And a good smorgasbord can be a thing of beauty once in a while.
Once in a while.
What I am decrying here, beloved readers is the How of our buffets. How Food is prepared, presented, pushed, and perceived, and what this does to our psyche as consumers and providers. There’s quite a lot to this kettle of fish, so let’s dig in.
Buffets, Then and Now
I was raised with the notion that buffets were only for special occasions and momentous events. I remember cutting my teeth at Triple-V Express back in its heyday in the early ‘90s. It was the birthday of my distaff grandmother, and with a passel of balikbayan aunts and uncles in tow, my family got a taste of their idea of the good life. I can practically see my mother’s face framed in the pixie cut and the teased wispy bangs that were the hairstyle du jour of that time as she gripped my hands, and intoned the cardinal rules of buffet dining: “Don’t get rice, it’ll fill you up quickly; if you must, just get one scoop; Go look at all the food offerings first, then go ‘round a second time and get what you like best. After that plate, you can try dishes you’re curious about, or be adventurous and go taste something you’ve never tried. If you see unusual dishes, like the Peking duck, the roast oysters, and the sashimi, go for it, but let me smell them first. As for desserts, we can discuss that later.”
And that’s how I ended up inadvertently impressing a few aunts-in-law when I came back with a serving of olives, raw oysters, and sea urchin on my plate. (Don’t look at me, they were the ones who said I had an “exotic palate”.) That was also the day I learned mint jelly went with lamb, wasabi was not to be eaten by itself, and other life-changing lessons of the culinary persuasion.
What? I was eleven, and it was still a pretty big world out there.
So fast-forward to TODAY.
There are now buffets you can enjoy for less than P500, making this a popular option for work buddies for their after-shift YOLO or Payday walwal. You worked hard for that money, and why the heck not #TreatYoSelf? Dad’s and Vikings cater to this crowd, and make sure their diners feel like VIPS: plush seating, lots of space between tables, and plated displays reminiscent of hotel dining.
If you’re not in the mood to get up from your comfy couch, why bother when you can get the food to come to you? Korean grill restos like Sangyupsalamat, Romantic Baboy, and others keep the meat cuts, side dishes, cheese and butter coming for as long as you can handle the grease, the smoke, and the endless eating. It’s all wan-to-sawa, busog-hanggang-leeg, dine-’til-you-drop, and most folks can’t seem to get enough of it.
Cooking Your Goose
While I am all for good dining, the way these buffet places are marketed is a little disturbing for me. There’s this implication that anyone can drop in and eat their fill (and maybe even more than that) all day, every day — and I think that that’s just not healthy in a lot of ways. That’s not ideal for your blood pressure, your waistline, and definitely not your bank account.
But let’s say that these considerations aren’t a big deal. What about how these restaurants operate and push product — i.e., food? With buffets set up to offer a mind-boggling variety of entrees, as well as how they make sure to keep the stations full and hot, one is bound to wonder how much food is in stock, and how are they keeping all that food in top condition for freshness, flavor, and safety, among other concerns. It’s not unlikely that in their pursuit of profit and need to keep buffet fees down that corners are cut, and the appeal is played up through other means, such as lighting, presentation, and more. The food poisoning scare in Angeles nearly five years ago is a cautionary tale, and I hope that the buffet businesses have learned from this.
But how is the everyday-buffet attitude affecting the way we view food? I worry that the prevalence of poorly-prepped food in buffets encourages the mindset that to get the most bang for your buck, what matters is quantity over quality. This makes people disregard the care and craft that go into cooking a dish, and dive right into getting as much of that Angus steak or fancy sushi into them, because to them, that’s the point of the buffet. I find this not only sad, but also lamentable because all the hard work our farmers, fishermen, and many other food producers put into feeding us goes unappreciated in a set up like this. They didn’t slave in that rice field or piggery, nor risk life and limb venturing out into the deep blue just for their handiwork to be peddled as a sub-par product.
I’m old school. I was raised by my grandmother distaff to value every grain of rice and every bit of food on my plate and to never waste any. So sue me.
A tavola non si invecchia
Quite honestly, I would rather see a kind of buffet that extolls the virtues and quality of a few but choice, cherished dishes. The dishes are relatively few, not because of a lack of imagination, but due to the dedication of their energies to offering food at its best, food that is memorable, food that is worth savoring. I’d really rather see a table where food is not only honored, but also is what binds people together in good conversation, sharing good feelings, and making good memories. The Europeans got this one right. A tavola non si invecchia — “You don’t grow old at the table.” Time isn’t wasted when spent with good company, in good conversation, and over good food.
Will buffets still be relevant in the future?
I’m no futurist, but I can at the very least hope that the philosophy of food will be given much more thought, care, and attention. Imagine buffets that feature just one or two tables of timeless, lovingly-cooked house specialities instead of exhausting columns of mediocre food, with perhaps a special dish as the star of the night. Instead of encouraging diners to eat as many dishes they as they can, or as much as they can, the buffet space would emphasize family dining, with conversations becoming the centerpiece of every meal. I, for one, would love to live in that sort of world, and gladly — nay, quite gleefully, sit at that table.