Budget-Friendly Buffets with Massive Visual Appeal
By Christy Lamagna CMP, CMM, CTSM
If you shy away from buffets over plated meals, it may be time to take another look at all that buffets have to offer. In addition to giving attendees the freedom to select their own food and quantities, buffets allow guests to stretch their legs, socialize with each other and, when planned properly, add unexpected flavors and fun to the meal.
Event strategists know a little creativity goes a long way. Inspired presentation and preparation brings fresh appeal to standard foods, elevating diners’ perceptions and enjoyment significantly while remaining within budget. Keep reading to find out how to give food a flavor makeover. With a bit of culinary creativity, you can make oatmeal (is there a more basic food?) sour cream and water colorful, fun and packed with unexpected flavor. Yes, sour cream and water are about to get interesting and delicious. Yep, I said it, delicious.
Let’s start with one of the world’s most tasteless foods; oatmeal. Beige in flavor as well as color, oatmeal is often viewed as something one eats only when either forced or when no other options exist. That’s about to change.
Instead of the standard garnishes of brown sugar, raisins and cinnamon, why not add some pizzazz and create a gourmet toppings bar? Get creative and include sweet and savory enhancements. For savory, think: peas, pecorino cheese, cracked pepper, pistachios, sautéed mushrooms, bacon bits, scallions, salt and pepper and feta cheese. How yummy does that sound? Suddenly, oatmeal has an entirely new flavor profile and instead of being boring, is now colorful, packed with vibrant flavors, interesting textures and fun to create.
For sweet offerings think: dried cherries, chocolate chips, assorted jams, maple syrup, rock crystal sugar and almond butter. Candied walnuts, raisins, pineapple or apple chunks, strawberries and flavored syrups offer additional variety and appeal.
On to our next buffet-worthy food makeover; mashed potatoes. An all-American favorite and staple, they are admittedly delicious but hardly exciting. With a little creativity they can go from “ho-hum” to “give me some.” Sun-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic, caramelized onions, blue cheese crumbles, chopped parsley, sautéed mushrooms, chives, pancetta, basil pesto, olives, salsa — once you start thinking, you’ll find the options are endless.
Give Ethnic Cuisine a Flavor Burst
Buffets are perfect for showcasing multiple ethnic cuisines, making them perfect for a flavor refresh. The next time you put out Mexican food on your buffet create a sour cream bar and add some zing to an otherwise unexciting condiment. Cilantro, lime, zesty jalapeño, chipotle, sriracha or sweet creamed corn add an unexpected flavor burst. As long as you’re being creative, why not give some zip to your salsa? Instead of the traditional hot, medium, mild, offer mango, peach, roasted tomato with red peppers, pineapple and black olive cilantro?
Belly Up to the Dessert Bar
Dessert, considered the best part of the meal by many, also can get predictable. Until now that is. Replace ice cream with gelato and while you’re at it, create a sundae bar complete with waffle and sugar cones. Toppings can edge out the main dish when they’re delicious enough. Brownie bites, crushed chocolate bars, pretzels, Swedish fish, marshmallows, sweetened cereal (think Captain Crunch or Fruit Loops) and a myriad of other dry toppings are usually huge hits. Add hot fudge, peanut butter sauce, warm caramel, wet walnuts, Nutella, whipped cream and a variety of fruit syrups. Strawberries, blueberries, pitted cherries, sliced bananas and granola offer healthier options for those trying to be good. With all those choices AND a dessert under it all, what’s not to love?
Designer Water and Inventive Ice Cubes
Think you’re done? Not by a long shot. What about adding some zing to your beverages? Even water can take on new twist with a bit of inspiration. By using clear dispensers instead of pitchers or bottled options, you set the stage for gourmet creations that are fun to taste and look at. Gourmet water bars are cost-effective, easy ways to steer attendees away from expensive cans/bottles. Customize their drinks and add variety in an unexpected place. Consider adding cucumbers, lemons, limes, orange slices or mint to water dispensers. Combine ingredients (cucumber and mint, for instance) to create new flavor profiles. Create a flavor of the day or swap out options as the day progresses, offering zingier citrus flavors as guests’ energy fades.
Create iced tea bars using flavored teas, sweet tea, decaf tea and sugar-free tea as the foundation. Build on that with lemon and lime slices, cinnamon sticks and fresh mint. Go the extra mile and ask the venue to create ice cubes in the same flavors so they won’t dilute the drink when they melt. Iced tea ice cubes, complete with either lemon zest or bits of mint frozen into them now make ice interesting! With something as simple as an ice buffet alongside your beverages, guests can create fun flavor twists to whatever beverage they choose.
After you’ve thought through the food on the buffet, pay attention to the ways it is presented and served. For the beverages, why not add colorful straws, fun glasses and paper umbrellas for a bit of color and fun? Venues often have a variety of baskets, serving bowls and plates they can mix and match to add visual appeal, color and texture.
Artichokes, Brussels sprout stalks, lemons, oranges and eggplant are visually interesting in texture, color and shape. Ask the chef to create a visual feast using the foods being served on the buffet as part of the décor. Bonus tip: carry the food as décor theme to the tables with tall cylinder vases full of lemons/limes, different shaped pastas, apples in multiple colors, etc.
Attendees will be delighted with new flavors to sample and the ability to construct their own meals in a setting that is visually appealing. Remember: Strategic events are about creating goal-driven experiences, and engaging all five senses is a key part of that experience. New sights, tastes, smells, textures and the sound of laughter and happy conversation should all accompany a well-designed meal.
All of these options are examples of foods, otherwise ignored, being transformed into visually appealing, delicious and affordable options. Take it a step beyond and have attendees take photos of their creations, text their flavor combinations and name their unique concoction. Food is only as interesting as the people preparing it, so tap into your imagination and let the deliciousness begin!
Bonus: click the below button for gourmet whipped cream recipes.