While restaurants are increasingly incorporating live cooking stations  into the mix, buffets still play an integral part in hotel and restaurant food service, writes Zara Horner

A  staple and popular dining option for business lunches, family brunches, casual get-togethers and any party or celebration, buffets need to provide safe, and effective serving solutions. Energy conservation is also an increasingly important consideration.

This requires a wide range of service tools, with displays and servers having to cater to a wide range of cuisine.


The players

Miyoun Chang, executive director at Korea-based manufacturer Tiger, says buffets in Asia have “grown very important in the hotel and catering industry, and as a result, a lot more companies are coming up with buffet items and collections.”

In this hugely competitive sector of the industry, and one which is constantly changing, Chang says there are recent developments from the client side as well, such as those which reflect the importance of presentation.

“There are a lot of small gadgets being demanded at the moment. Items such as risers, cubes and different shapes of bowls and platters help display food to its best advantage.”

Tiger has recently introduced the modular buffet concept, Domino.

“Buffet menus change from breakfast to dinner. Therefore, equipment flexibility and versatility is very important to be cost effective,” Chang says.

The Domino range has been developed to meet this requirement.

Made from 18/10 stainless steel, the interlocking system is durable and easy to construct in any design preferred. Domino can use canned fuel or electricity.

“Matching accessories are in continuous development,” Chang points out.

The overriding criteria Chang’s clients have when making buffet equipment purchases are that it is “attractive and modern looking, is stackable, and always … price.”

With a philosophy which aims at “higher productivity, energy savings, and safer cooking environments” for its clients, CookTek’s director of sales Asia-Pacific, Christopher Slater says, “We see our equipment regularly specified by consultants and operators alike now.”

“The buffet experience needs to capture guests’ imaginations, and as a result buffets now tend to be more creative and dynamic.”

This has had a knock-on effect with how the food is presented, Slater says.

“It has changed over the years from traditional bain marie style and solid fuel warmers, such as our Sterno units, to more innovative design offerings to fit the décor of the hotel and the level of dining experience delivered to guests.”

Induction technology ranges have played a big part in this, Slater says. Faster than gas and more efficient than electricity, induction units are easy to control and allow for precision cooking, while surfaces remain relatively cool reducing the risk of injury and making them easier to clean.

“Our products are more energy efficient and safer for both operator and user. And, they provide the opportunity to be more creative in the design of the buffet service areas,” says Slater.

CookTek has developed induction buffet equipment specifically for front of house service.

“Our focus is providing energy efficient technology while maintaining food safety. The elimination of steam and solid fuels goes a long way to providing ideal solutions on both counts,” he says.

Latest developments include the CookTek Incogneeto range, which eliminates the need for holes to be cut in tables or tops, even those made from granite or marble.

“We also have traditional drop-in style induction warmers called Silenzio, the biggest feature of which is the elimination of noisy fans as we provide units that use low energy while being extremely efficient in delivering the warming medium.”

For Slater, when customers are looking to buy new, or update buffet equipment, “the criteria can vary greatly. However, we are seeing a trend towards life-cycle cost, and energy efficiency.”


Indispensable for breakfast

“Design, quality, and function,” are top of the priority list for Bavarian company Zieher.

“There has always been a great demand for items that can be used on the buffet,” executive director marketing and design, Oliver Zieher says.

“Especially where breakfast in concerned, the buffet is indispensable.”

Zieher goes on to note that in recent years buffet sets ups have changed dramatically.

“The variety of buffet items has increased, individuality and flexibility are now the focus.”

As a result, stylish, yet safe food presentation has become increasingly important, he says.

“Formerly big bowls and jars were used, but this has changed and the bowls have become steadily smaller down to miniature size. The buffet needs to get refilled more often, but always kept fresh, appetising and tidy. Cooled areas and chafing dishes for warm food remain an important part of the buffet, but even here the trend is towards smaller units.”

Zieher buffet ranges focus now on size, and materials used in production.

“Systems are made of carbon, wood, glass, and come in a concrete-look finish, as well,” Zieher explains.

“The food can be arranged very flexibly and in amazing ways using the Zieher classic Skyline or the newly developed Squareline, which comes with optional LED lighting fixtures and which we call ‘the buffet with a thousand faces’.”

The Stablo range is made from high gloss finish stainless steel to display big bowls and dishes, and can be placed directly on the floor.

“Another highlight is the Fingerfood Tree,” Zieher says. “This presents miniatures, and more, in a whole new way.”


Feeding the masses

Sales figures have been increasing “directly related to new hotel openings in the region,” says Raymond Tam, director Asia at Athena Tableware.

“The buffet is the most convenient yet presentable way to serve a big number of guests,” he goes on. “And equipment can be easily upgraded, then designed to fit catering requirements.”

Tam says what clients demand from and for their buffet units keeps changing.

“F&B managers and chefs are very open to new concepts and different designs as they realise that is the key to attracting diners. Buffets have to be user friendly, eye catching and new in form.”

One of the concepts which manufacturers have had to respond to is the tasting menu, Tam says. “A lot of sexy and handy portion wares are being created. Eye catching, handy and flexible for different settings are the characteristics needed.”

Among Athena’s latest offerings is a system of natural slate platters, glass platters, and small portion wares in porcelain and glass. “All of which is designed to enable chef to display his creative work in his most desirable expression while it is totally flexible in size and form of setting.”

When it comes to buying buffet equipment, Tam says clients who are buying new have more flexibility and buy according to the design and style of the fine dining outlet within the property. “But if it is for replenishment or enhancement for a venue, the top criteria will be flexibility and ease of use.”


The sharp end

Patrice Falantin has been executive chef at Brisbane’s Sofitel property for a little over five years.  Arriving in Australia from Europe 16 years ago, Falantin says he has seen a lot of changes in the way people approach food, and their expectations.

“Television and magazines have had a big influence in getting people interested in what they eat, where it comes from, and how it is presented,” Falantin says.

“The general public is highly educated when it comes to food now,” he says, making for a very interesting and creative work environment.

“We create events around food,” Falantin says. “We have themed parties, invite guest chefs to come and cook, and even showcase private collections such as Chanel last year and the Queensland ballet this year, all centred around buffet-style food presentation.”

Catering for around 60 to 80 buffet covers a day and up to 300 for themed events, Falantin says there are two considerations when designing a buffet.

“First, the volume of food has to be properly managed for the number of guests so there can be frequent, but not wasteful replenishment. Secondly, buffets allow for the creation of all sorts of different dishes. You can really get creative with everything from hot dishes and salads to desserts.”

Sourcing local ingredients as much as possible is also important to Falantin.

“We go local for freshness,” he says. “We are conscious that if we buy internationally costs increase, the product may not be as fresh as we want it to be, and there are environmental considerations – we increase our carbon footprint.

“We are very lucky here in Queensland as meat, fish, vegetables, and fruits are produced on the doorstep.”

Seafood is a highlight of his buffets, Falantin says. “Queenslanders are very proud of their high quality seafood and we work very hard to ensure consistently top quality seafood selections at the buffet. We have to get the seafood right!”

Getting the buffet equipment right has become a science, agrees Falantin, in terms of how many utensils are required, how well the units do what is needed of them, and how durable and cost effective they are.

“Budgeting is all-important,” Falantin concedes. “So we tend to stick with equipment for several years and would only really change if there is a complete design or style alteration.

“We want everything we use to be robust, yet elegant.

“We recently replaced all our induction units after five years. We chose a brand from China, based on cost, but we had a mechanical problem as the hinges started failing within a few months.”

Falantin realised to get what he wanted from the units and for them to be properly sanitised the lids had to change from oil pressure closing to a mechanical closing structure.

“It was a big learning curve.”

For Falantin the successful buffet must be inviting.

“It must be laid out so that food is easily accessible, with no traffic snarls. Variety is key, so there must be a regular change of selection. We change the whole buffet every two weeks.”

Falantin says buffets have been “completely revamped” since they first became popular in the 1970s, but that one thing never goes out of style with buffet food.

“We may be the most expensive buffet in town,” he says. “But diners know they will always get top quality.”