Chefs are debunking boring, bland buffets with appealing culinary displays and bountiful selections.
Members and guests served by club and resort chefs dine regularly at the most exclusive restaurants in all corners of the world—places where Anjou pears are served with Brie and smoking cinnamon, and where a tantalizing amuse bouche is de rigueur.
These discerning diners would never opt for bottom-of-the-barrel, gut-busting buffets that cost less than a gallon of gas and are served from a half-dozen hotel pans lining a steam table. Still, buffets are an every-week—if not everyday—occurrence at many club and resort properties. And they’re wildly successful—because club chefs have learned to appeal to their sophisticated clientele through exciting culinary techniques, chef-driven menus and smart staging and sourcing strategies.
|SUMMING IT UP
“Our food quality is unmatched regardless of the style of service,” says Scott Rowe, Executive Chef at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary, N.C. “Buffets give our members an opportunity to try a greater variety of high-quality dishes in smaller portions while socializing with friends, often dining together in large groups, eating at their own pace.”
“Buffets used to be about consuming massive quantities of food,” says Jeremy Brun, Executive Chef at Longaberger Golf Club in Nashport, Ohio. “Not anymore. Instead, buffets allow guests with high culinary expectations to get in, have a great meal and get out in a reasonable amount of time.”
Longaberger offers a weekly buffet lunch with dishes that are generally thematic—Italian, Mexican, seafood or barbecue—and feature a nice selection of scratch-made entrées, salads, sides and desserts.
“Quality is key,” says Brun, who adds that communication between the front of the house and the back of the house must be especially well-tuned for a buffet service to go well.
With his sous chef on the front line, Brun employs a fool-proof system. “Maintaining the buffet is a back-of-the-house job, so my sous ensures the buffet is replenished and attractive and food temperatures are correct,” he explains. “He also cleans up messes, helps avoid cross-contamination, and lets me know what needs to be fired and when.”
That keeps the front of the house free to focus on stocking plates, running food and catering to special requests. “Just last week, we had a vegan guest during an Italian-themed buffet,” says Brun. “The waiter let the kitchen know of her needs, and we were able to create a meal just for her.”
As a public golf club, Longaberger has a successful a la carte business, but its bread and butter is catering. Last year alone, the club hosted nearly 30 weddings. And, according to Brun, a little more than half of the club’s catered functions opt for buffet-style service.
The same is true at Prestonwood CC. “There are pros and cons to both styles of service,” says Rowe. “From a culinary standpoint, buffets give us the opportunity to have fun with different themes, food styles and ethnic cuisines. The challenge is properly estimating the consumption of each item on the buffet, and to purchase and prepare accordingly.”
Prestonwood offers a lunch buffet Tuesday through Friday, a family-night dinner buffet on Thursday nights, and a Sunday brunch buffet. “In our Red Fox Restaurant, we do a Sunday night spaghetti buffet that has become very popular with families,” says Rowe.
With so many buffets on its calendar, the Prestonwood staff goes to great lengths to ensure that waste stays at a minimum.
|Safe HandlingBuffets pose a number of challenges when it comes to food safety. However, with proper planning, observing food-safety controls and constant supervision, every dish can be held—and served—safely.
“The health department has very specific rules and restrictions for holding hot and cold foods for buffet service, and there is no way to get around that,” says Scott Rowe, Executive Chef at Prestonwood Country Club, Cary, N.C. “Here, we are very mindful of temperatures on our hot and cold buffets as well as the length of time that dishes are on the line. We temp and log all of the cold food that goes out and rotate them accordingly in compliance with the health code.
“We also try to put lesser amounts out at first and refill more often, ensuring consistent, cold and fresh food,” he says. “Much of the hot food is fired to order or as we need it. This can be a bit challenging, but we use dedicated staff to monitor the lines.”
Some general food safety tips to follow:
Sources: Centre for Food Safety; Food Safety News
“The last person to come through a buffet should perceive it as abundantly as the first,” says Rowe. “But that doesn’t have to result in a ton of waste. By plating smaller portions and changing platters more frequently, we can keep the buffet looking plentiful. Plus, the food stays fresher and we’re never stuck with a full pan of something that has dried out or overcooked.”
High-cost proteins are fired at Prestonwood as needed. This takes a concerted effort between the front and back of the house, but it certainly pays off with reduced waste and costs.
“We create consumption reports for larger member events, golf tournaments and functions,” says Rowe. “Food amounts purchased, prepped and consumed are logged into a ‘Chefs Shared Drive’ database that anyone in the club can reference. That helps us make educated decisions on how to purchase and prep for an upcoming event.”
Dan Capello, Executive Chef at Chenal Country Club in Little Rock, Ark., takes a similar approach to minimizing waste. He plates individual portions so he can either fill platters completely, or spread the items out to still look appealing. Then he keeps track of how much comes in and goes out of the kitchen. “The huge displays of food make it hard to look good after it has been picked over, and can result in a ton of waste that can’t be reused,” says Capello. “We try to stay away from them as best we can.”
In addition to platters of small plates, Chenal CC uses a heated stone with dual heat lamps when setting up buffets, and then places heated platters on top. “We can change them out as needed, maintain temperature, and still retain the look throughout the event,” says Capello.
Shrewd staging techniques like this can make a big difference in the overall salability of a buffet. “There is something about a buffet that will always be timeless,” says Capello. “It incorporates all of your senses, and members can see, smell, and sometimes touch the food. It is very different than ordering off a traditional black-and-white menu.”
To help lure members, Chenal focuses on texture, color, landscape and décor. “We incorporate items from the event to personalize each buffet,” says Capello. “It can be as simple as wedding flowers, memorabilia, or framed menus. We use props that go with the theme as well.
“For example, our New Orleans Brunch buffet has beads on the tables, as well as street lamps set around and a sign that says Bourbon Street. During our member-guest golf tournament, the Oak Leaf Classic, all of the menu cards will display the Oak Leaf logo, along with colored linens and other fall items intermingled throughout.”
For Prestonwood CC, the location of the buffet serves as its biggest selling point. “It serves as a temptation for members visiting the clubhouse with other business in mind,” says Rowe. “Strategically placed near a main passageway, pleasant smells, polished silver chafers and food displays attract many.”
But when staging buffets at Barrington Golf Club in Aurora, Ohio, Executive Chef Ray Cockill is careful not to overdo it with the frills. “You can achieve color, texture and eye appeal by being creative with vegetables,” he says. “I like to use ornamentals and ice glows for salads and other cold items, to add visual appeal and help them hold.”
Putting the Right Food into Service
Offering five-star food in every aspect of the operation is a given. But when served buffet-style, certain dishes work—and hold—better than others.
“BBQ, shrimp and grits, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken and collard greens are hugely popular,” says Prestonwood’s Rowe. “Our members are big seafood lovers, and generally prefer it prepared with a lighter sauce, which helps them to hold better. We’ll simply season and grill or sear it, then plate it with a light fruit salsa or fresh tomato and basil relish.
“We do an aromatic braised chicken dish with assorted imported olives, potatoes and tomato broth that goes over well,” he adds. “And when we prepare any Indian food such as butter chicken and choley [curried chickpeas], we always get compliments.”
For a chef-manned station, Prestonwood carves a loin of ahi tuna with sesame crust, soy and wasabi as each diner comes through the line. “The tuna is a perfect accompaniment to the fresh sushi made by our sushi chef,” says Rowe.
At Chenal CC, sliders are quite popular, so the club offers a delicious variation. “We do a 48-hour smoked short rib, with oven-dried tomato, arugula and horseradish cream on herb brioche,” says Capello. “Chocolate is also popular on the dessert side of our buffets; in place of a more traditional dessert bar we’ll do a ‘Chocolate Extravaganza’ with assorted candies and a truffle croquembouche.”
Buffets at Barrington GC generally feature a number of action stations, including an oyster shooter station during clambakes or individual pasta stations in omelet-size pans, so each member can design their own pasta dish with the assortment of fresh ingredients on display. “I also cure and smoke foods in-house, which provides a fresh, unique diversity to many of our buffet items,” he says.
To help buffet dishes hold longer, Chenal CC uses a combi-oven, and Capello prepares many components sous vide. This technique uses a constant, low cooking temperature that he can control while helping to retain more of the juiciness. “We can take food out of the cooking bag and do a quick sear in smaller portions,” he says. “Temperature control is critical, from cooking, chilling, holding and displaying. Using individual servings like this helps tremendously. We can keep items rotated quicker and move the remaining servings more efficiently. By using heat-stable serving vessels, assorted skewers and glassware, we make each serving special.”
Prestonwood uses a combi-therm oven for its buffets that can roll in and out of the dining room. It has a full memory and is programmable for specific meats, using a temperature probe. “We also have several cook-and-hold boxes that allow us to roast at high temperatures, then back off and hold foods at the proper temperature for longer,” says Rowe.
Staying Hooked to the Supply Chain
Because most properties write buffet menus far in advance, costing out some commodities can be challenging.
“I’m a big fan of market reports; I receive multiple e-mails daily on what’s going on around the country and world that will affect our food staples,” says Rowe. “The reports go over things like weather, the price of fuel, and costs of commodities like wheat and corn.
“We try to use as many seasonal items as we can on buffets and the club menu,” he adds. “Those are the items that generally are the best quality and have the best price. When prices rise because of weather or fuel prices, we work even more closely with our purveyors to come up with alternatives. So those market reports and projections are not only helpful, but critical, in menu planning.”
When prices rise for certain nonnegotiable menu items, such as romaine in a Caesar salad, Barrington’s Cockill will create an alternative dish for the one with the higher food cost. “Offering a special appealing salad for a great perceived value is an easy way to offset the cost of the inflated item,” he says.
At Chenal, Capello makes sure buffet menus are fluid enough for last-minute changes. “Our local farmers can have it rough here in Arkansas, as the weather is always changing,” he says. “We may plan for something weeks out, but that can change overnight and we’ll have to go to plan B. It’s important to have good relationships with your vendors so they can make you aware of pricing and you can engineer a menu to take advantage of finding right products at the right price.”
An Effective Showcase
While buffets are great for serving large numbers quickly—especially for lunch or family events, when many people need to be in and out in 45 minutes—they play a valuable marketing role, too. “A good buffet is a showcase and selling point for banquets and other amenities like golf,” says Longaberger’s Brun.
Capello agrees, noting that at Chenal, some buffets serve more as a marketing tool than as a profit center.
“Our seasonal event buffets are the most popular F&B events we do,” he says. “They are an important part of our operation, and they drive sales in other areas. The club views them as a way to build our overall program.”