A buffet is the driverless car of entertaining. Guests help themselves to dinner, no precisely measured settings required, and when all is well programmed, the host rarely has to grab the wheel. Once guests arrive, you want to keep your time in the kitchen to a minimum. Don’t leave your guests on their own, lonely, embarrassed and desperately making polite chitchat while you vanish to cook. Prepare things that will allow you to stay with them and talk.
It’s how we entertain. But it requires planning. We always see to it that we have the right pots and platters, and enough plates, glasses, cutlery and generous napkins for the head count on our list.
We do not consider paper or plastic to be an option.
If there are too many guests for our table, we can guarantee seating to accommodate everyone, with side tables or coffee tables providing a place to park a plate and a glass. And we put our coats away to free the hallway for guests’ bags and coats.
Our main course choices are tours-de-force — in the food department we recommend you do only what you can comfortably, but also dishes that require a crowd’s appetite and offer a varied spread of ingredients. These classics can usually be prepared mostly in advance and reheated just before serving.
All you need is enough food to go around, served simply.
A good example is choucroute garnie; several kinds of fresh cuts of salami, prosciutto, sausages, plus a huge fresh parmesan, served with sauerkraut, pickles, and sourdough to mop it all up plus an assortment of mustards alongside.
For the main, we usually serve a side of salmon. A slow roasted lamb or a seared filet of beef with sauce of some kind. And free range roast chickens with marinade. All set on a serving table, guests can help themselves from.
There’s always a pasta al forno with mushrooms, eggplant, and peppers plus a grilled Mediterranean vegetable bake with parmesan for those who prefer vegetarian options. Tackling an unfamiliar recipe for a party is the last thing we would advise a home cook to do.
There should always be a big salad on the table — but one with greens in pieces small enough so guests do not need to cut them. We assemble a massive bowl of butter lettuces and wild rocket with avocado, slivered red onion and cucumbers, tossed in a simple sherry vinegar dressing. We also usually add a bowl of warm potatoes with vinaigrette, caperberries and chopped herbs. Preparation is the key to a great night, and most of this requires shopping for the ingredients in advance, and pre-cooking everything – so when your guests arrive all you’ll need to do is look glamorous, be charming and dish up the food.
Guests should serve their own drinks as well. Put out big well-proportioned glasses, lots of ice in glamorous ice buckets, (keep extra bags in the freezer), champagne, wines, gin, Campari, Pimms, Aperol, mixers, beer, and sparkling water.
Let guests go at it – nothing makes people more relaxed than a generous glass of something when they arrive.
Or pare it down by just offering wine, and mineral water. As for dessert, options include simple spiced apple cakes, French pear tarts with a good ice cream. You can add things like fruit tartlets, slices of cakes, seasonal berries and fruits, plus pretty dishes of good chocolates. Display it on pretty platters, and lay it out down the middle of your table for guests to serve themselves.
After-dinner coffee and tea is where the driverless car breaks down. Regular? Decaf? Black tea? Green tea? Herbal? Sugar? Sugar substitute? Honey? Milk? Non-dairy milk? Lemon? The best approach is to be ready to set up two large (four to six cup) French presses or drip machines, one with decaf and one with regular. You will need a generous kettle for water. Also have several kinds of organic tea bags available. Hope for the best.
And now for the final reckoning: the cleanup. Be sure your dishwasher is empty before the doorbell rings, and have a good section of the kitchen benchtop for dirty dishes or, failing that, at least have a milk crate to chuck the dishes in.
When it becomes evident that interest in the food has worn down, it does not require much effort to pile up dirty plates and silverware and take them to the kitchen. Glassware, too.
Avoid having guests pitch in. You will deal with the debris after your guests have gone, and you’re still powered by their awe, gratitude and the fun!