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Buffets 101 Part II: the presentation

A good design serves a function. The function of a buffet is to serve the guest. Therefore, a properly devised buffet design places foods logically. Guests should be able to identify what they are eating and reach the food easily with appropriate service tools, including plates and silverware, strategically positioned. If there is a chance that a food might cause an allergic reaction, guests should be warned, either through placards, a printed menu or by assigning knowledgeable wait staff on the line. The layout should be designed so as to keep foods properly heated or chilled and safe from cross contamination.

The role of design 

When we like the way many elements are combined in a single display, we use a variety of words to describe the effect: simple, elegant, balanced, integrated, unified, organic or even synergistic. The chef’s task is to exploit the full sensory potential of every dish to create a presentation that is practical, functional and appealing to all the senses. Planning a design that enhances food presentation is an important way to highlight the work of the staff and to benefit from the special skills that go into planning and producing a unified, thematic and successful buffet.

Judgments about what is fashionable or beautiful are subjective. They change over time, sometimes quite rapidly. However, the basic principles behind good design and presentation remain constant, even as new styles and trends become popular.
One of the primary purposes of food presentation is to be functional and practical. Enhanced food presentations integrate all aspects of the buffet, including the theme, the menu, the style of service and your clients’ expectations. The goal is never to simply meet those expectations and standards, but to exceed them. A well thought-out and executed plan is a distinct advantage in any successful buffet. It is important to remember that these techniques are enhancements to the food’s appeal; the real importance and focus of the food should always lie, ultimately, in its flavor and texture.

Balance, as it relates to the work of the chef, is achieved by combining the physical aspects of food in the context of specific design principals. Food supplies the important visual elements: colors, textures and shapes. Additionally, the foods you serve also supply two important, but non-visual, elements: aroma and flavor. The design principles at the chef’s disposal include symmetrical or asymmetrical compositions, contrasting or complementary arrangements, and the use of lines to create patterns or indicate motion. In creating a balanced presentation, consider the accessibility of each item to be placed on the platter. Place larger items in the rear and lower items in front. Items such as sauce boats should be kept in an area that does not disturb the design, but allows the guest easy access.

Texture is important to the way food looks, as well as the way it feels in our mouths.
The surface of a food will have a tendency to either reflect light or absorb it, making some foods glossy and others matte. Some foods have highly textured exteriors while others are very smooth. The way the food feels when you bite into it is another aspect of texture that the chef needs to include in a plan. Too much of the same texture is monotonous.
Cooking technique is vital to great presentation, because no matter how artful the display, the way the food tastes is the most important element. In addition to assuring that foods are flavorful and at the right temperature, the process of cooking gives the chef a chance to enhance the food in other significant ways. “Visual flavor” is an important concept to the garde manger chef when creating a cold food display. Unlike hot foods, with their abundant aromas to entice the guest, the aroma of cold foods is less apparent, making it necessary for guests to “see” the flavors. Some techniques deepen or darken the food’s exterior; grilling, roasting and smoking are a few examples. With these cooking methods, it is also relevant for the guests to be able to see the seasonings used on the food, i.e., specks of seasonings and herbs or the shine of oil from a dressing. Other techniques introduce new elements, such as coatings or wrappers; pan frying and deep-frying are two such techniques. For an interesting selection throughout the menu, introduce a number of different techniques for a variety of flavors, colors and textures.

The shape and height of the food is an important part of buffet presentation. Food has three dimensions. Cubes, cylinders, spheres and pyramids are just some of the shapes food can assume. Alternating or repeating shapes in a design is one way to add visual interest to food arrangements. You can alter the natural shape of a food by cutting or slicing it. To give height to foods that are naturally flat, you can roll or fold them, arrange them in piles or pyramids, or use serving pieces such as pedestals, columns or baskets to raise foods.

A focal point serves an important function on a platter. It introduces a large shape into a field of smaller shapes. It adds height. It can make the arrangement logical and sensible to the guest; one common focal point is a grosse pièce (literally “big piece”). The guest can instantly identify the food on the platter. Sometimes, in place of a grosse pièce, there may be one or more significant garnish elements. The garnish elements are things that can possibly identify what is contained in the food, such as an herb or citrus zest or other ingredient. They can also be ingredients or items that suggest a style or region where the food originated. Such a garnish functions in the same way as a grosse pièce; they too are most effective and attractive when they offer some information about the food instead of simply adding a spot of color.

Strong, clean lines arrange the food neatly and logically. Lines can be straight, curved or angled. When two lines meet, they create a shape. When you repeat a line, you create a pattern. The more evenly spaced the lines, the more obvious the pattern. The wider the spaces, the more obvious they are as discrete lines. In order to have a line, you need a starting and ending point; the focal point in an arrangement is that reference point. Lines can move from or toward this point and thereby introduce a sense of flow or motion into the arrangement.

The platter’s layout can be symmetrical or asymmetrical. The position of the focal point on a platter or plate determines how the food is arranged. A focal point positioned off-center means that one side of the arrangement appears to have more weight than the other. The lines extending away from the focal point are of different lengths. When the focal point is positioned in the center, it gives the impression that both sides of the arrangement are in equilibrium. The lines radiating from the focal point are the same length. Asymmetrical arrangements tend to look natural while symmetrical arrangements look formal.

Arrangement of items on a line

Since a buffet line contains more than one offering or dish, give some thought to the sequence and arrangement of those dishes. Arrange dishes on the buffet line so that they are easy to see, easy to reach and easy to serve.

What follows is a collection of general guidelines you can use to determine the best display sequence. Not every one will be useful for every type of buffet, though each of them has a practical purpose. Some of the most popular and creative patterns used in buffets today were arrived at only by creatively disregarding a widely accepted rule.

  • Place plates where they are easy to see at the start of a line, and at each independent station where they are easy to reach, and for the wait staff to monitor and replenish. Utensils and napkins are best at the end of the line, so guests won’t have to juggle them as they make their selections.
  • Keep foods that might drip or spill closest to the guests.
  • Use pedestals and similar devices to elevate platters. This is especially effective when you need to save space or when you would like to control the service of expensive items.
  • Keep hot foods near one another; likewise, group chilled foods in their own area.
  • Place sauces and condiments directly with the foods they accompany so that guests understand how to use them. Each one should have its own underliner and a serving tool if required.

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