Friday, January 29, 2010

The Buffet Dinner

Many hosts these days prefer the informality of buffet dining, and for good reasons.
Compared to other types of entertaining, buffets
  • Are easier to prepare in advance.
  • Require less help.
  • Can accommodate more people, and stragglers seem less conspicuous.
  • Usually consist of only one course and dessert. Guests enjoy buffets because they can move around easily, meet new people, and are less likely to get stuck with a dud for the duration of the meal.
Buffet food must be easy to eat, especially if it is a standing-only party. Think about accommodating the clumsiest person you know, and you’ll do fine. Make sure you cut the food into small pieces and butter the rolls in advance. Do your best to make your buffet table a beautiful still life decorated with flowers. Place the table so that the guests have an easy time getting to it, serving themselves, and getting away from it. Sometimes two buffet tables are best for a large crowd. Another workable idea is one long table with identical dishes on either end, plates and cutlery in the center.
Don’t display desserts at the same time as the main courses. If people put dessert on the plate with other food, things get mixed up and messy and the food ends up looking as though it has already been eaten. If possible, either clear the table and reset it with dessert, or serve dessert from a separate table. For a seated buffet, serving dessert and coffee, rather than having it buffet style, is a nice touch.
Guests at a buffet must remember that they are in a private home and not at an allyou-can-eat cafeteria.

The Meal—Beginnings and Endings

The host should be prepared to start the dinner table conversation if it doesn’t start by itself. Purists say that the only music appropriate for dinner is the arpeggio of sparkling conversation. I’m not sure I agree. Soft, upbeat background music can be very pleasant and brighten the mood.
Don’t hold up dinner for one or two late guests. Let them join the party whenever they arrive, at whatever point in the meal you happen to be. It is not your responsibility to turn into a short-order cook for someone who has missed a course or two. Decide in advance what your response will be when a guest asks if he or she can help with serving or clearing the table. If you think another person in your kitchen will be in the way, or be more of an annoyance than a help, be prepared to say: “Thanks so much for the offer. I’ve got my own foolproof system, so why don’t you just stay where you are and enjoy the conversation.” (Guests: If you help to clear dishes, clear each dish separately, one in each hand. Never scrape or stack the dishes.)
The host signals the end of the meal by putting his or her napkin on the table, to the left of the plate. At this point the host leads the guests out of the dining room for more conversation. Otherwise, the guests might begin taking their leave.
Although you want to keep the party going for a time after dinner, feel free to tell late-staying partiers that you are tired and must call it a night.
Guests who leave the party early should do so with as little fanfare as possible so that others don’t start following suit, thereby bringing the festivities to a premature or awkward close. Do say good-night to your host, however. You can avoid being persuaded to remain by simply saying thank you and good-night. Send a thank-you note to your host the next day. At the very least, call.

At the Table

Never let seating happen by accident.
Every party of more than eight people should have place cards. (See “Place Cards” later in the chapter for details.)
For groups smaller than eight, the host should have a clear idea of seating and so instruct the guests.
Without assigned seats, guests often feel awkward making their way to the table, afraid to interrupt a conversation or afraid to branch out. Open seating can result in an uncomfortable scene with people trying to decide where to sit, people sitting and then moving, and impromptu field marshals trying to take over to organize the seating according to their own prejudices. Place cards, on the other hand, make people feel special, protected, looked after.
Guests should never, ever, rearrange place cards to suit themselves.