Jun 5, 2020
Coronavirus can rob me of a milestone-birthday party and the vacation to Europe I had planned since last year, but I cannot pretend to be okay with the prospect of hotel breakfast buffets becoming “a thing of the past.”
Call me a glutton, but rising to a fancy breakfast spread provokes a giddy feeling akin to waking up to a lit-up tree surrounded by presents on Christmas morning. Will there be an Indian station? Is the Greek yogurt homemade? How many cheeses will be on offer? Do they even have peanut butter, my favorite condiment? Are there bubbles, and if so are they waiter-service or pour-my-own? So many options, so much possibility. It’s one of travel’s greatest pleasures—how can a la carte ever compare?
I’m well aware that buffets get a bad rap for being overly indulgent and wasteful, but they come from sophisticated roots. While sumptuous spreads of food have existed since Medieval times, the concept was formalized in the 16th century with the Swedish tradition of a brännvinsbord, a table of finger foods served by the upper class to guests before a feast.
The pre-dinner brännvinsbord was such a hit that by the early 18th century it had turned into the meal itself, thereby being known as a smörgåsbord. The spreads, which were often laid out for guests coming from long distances, would feature a medley of Swedish delicacies like salted fish, eggs, and salmon. Unlike the buffets we are all familiar with today, smörgåsbords weren’t a never-ending deluge, and definitely didn’t come with an omelet station.
The concept became known as a buffet in English after the French sideboard furniture from which the meal was typically served: ‘les bufets.’ By 1939, when the Swedes brought the smörgåsbord to New York for the World’s Fair, the idea of a buffet had caught on internationally. In the wake of the Great Depression, an eating style that valued quantity over quality was especially attractive. Plus, before the typical spread included high-priced ingredients like lobster or truffle-infused hollandaise sauce, the self-serving buffets proved to be cheaper than hiring waiting staff to serve entire dining halls. Hotels around the U.S. and then the world quickly adopted buffet-style eateries.
When I was a kid, I could shamelessly carry a tower of pain au chocolates back to the table I shared with my brother and parents. These days, with concerns about food waste, with the peer pressure for healthy living, and with videos of rabid tourists attacking each other over seafood towers pervasive, my love for the ritual is practically illicit. Buffets have become the epitome of gluttony. But if multiple rounds of caloric French toasts and mushy breakfast casseroles are wrong, then I don’t want to be right.
Besides, a well-curated buffet has the power to open cultural doors. For example, the first time I discovered natto was when I mistook it for cheese (a very strange-looking cheese) at a hotel in Nagoya. In Vietnam, I learned that the chefs at Sai Gon Dong Ha Hotel in rural Quang Tri province, Vietnam, think that spaghetti and mini hot dogs is an “American Breakfast Dish.” (For the record, I don’t really blame them for assuming so.) “Rather than imparting lessons, I try to inspire guests through food,” says Franck Detrait, director of food and beverage at Andaz Singapore. “At Andaz, we use what we serve as a vehicle for the promotion of Singaporean food and Singaporean-owned food brands. For example, we have stations for all of the most popular local dishes and have a partnership with local bakery Tiong Bahru Bakery to use their sourdough throughout the hotel.”
Diversity has previously been the buffet’s most redeeming quality after abundance. However, nowadays—with the help of the global sustainable food movement—quality and source of origin of an ingredient have moved up on the eater’s hierarchy of needs.“Over the years, we have realized that consumers have become more discerning when it comes to the foods they are consuming. There’s an increased awareness towards conscious eating and choosing responsible food sources,” says Detrait. “Consumers are now looking for high-quality ingredients—as well as alternative diet options like low fat, vegan and gluten-free dishes—instead of just large quantities of food at buffets.”
Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed many luxury hotels have opted for a partial buffet with breads, fruits, cereals and cold cuts but mains as a la carte options. More fastidious hotels like Amans, Bangkok’s The Siam or Capella Ubud couldn’t even conceive of a self-service element. I get the need to make an intentional departure from the less-than-classy associations with buffets. I also fully understand why serving spoons, exposed foods and dining rooms packed with roving gluttons aren’t exactly pandemic-appropriate.
Still, I will mourn the buffet breakfast’s demise, and continue to hope we’ll all get to experience that weird sense of buffet-induced bliss tinged with the tiniest bit of shame somehow. I’m not sure what vacations without snaking counters of inexhaustible grub will look like, but I can’t imagine it will be as bright. Who wants to order a fourth serving of sausages from a waiter when you can sneak back to the grill station yourself? Think of all the other sinful goodies waiting to be discovered on the brännvinsbord along the way.