Munch lunch at a Chinese restaurant, brunch at a Holiday Inn, or dinner at a wedding reception, and chances are good you will come face to face with the The All-You-Can-Eat Buffet.
If you’re a Buffet Amateur like me, your pupils dilate and your mouth starts watering as soon as you spot the long table full of steam trays and criss-crossed table cloths. Soon it’s game on, and you grab a plate and pile it high with some bread, a few salads, and a couple rolled-up salamis or a bowl of Won Ton soup. For plate number two you tackle the entrees, scooping up sticky heaps of Kung Pao chicken, soggy French Toast, or paper-thin slices of roast beef soaking in dark mushroom gravy. Then you go back for a third plate, this one featuring a tipsy mountain of desserts — maybe some assorted squares, a thick, gummy slice of cheesecake, or some fluorescent pink, freezer-burned ice cream sliding around your plate.
Then as you lay bloated on your chair, your buttons bursting, your eyelids drooping, you face a final decision: Do you go back for The Fourth Plate?
The Fourth Plate is almost always a good idea before you do it and a bad idea afterwards. It’s the helping after the helping after. It’s the Greatest Hits Plate, a star-studded collection featuring the most popular items from Plate 1, 2, and 3, coming together for the reunion tour, the last hurrah, the final dance at the dinner table.
The Fourth Plate is also a famous mark of a Buffet Amateur, because it can be the sign of someone who realizes that Plate 2 was the best plate and they really just want more of Plate 2. For years, I scarfed down The Fourth Plate at the Indian buffet near my college. Buttery, pillowy-soft naans piled high, thick and creamy Butter Chicken, and spicy, simmering lamb in a hearty broth. It was just too much. I caved in every time and walked away with a curry-busting gut and a samosa hangover.
Since then I’ve been tutored on the art of mastering the all-you-can-eat buffet. Everybody’s got their own techniques, but here’s what I’ve learned over the years:
1. The Walk-Through. Don’t do what I used to do and blindly take a spoonful of everything. No, you’ve got to do your Walk-Through First. You’re a detective, popping open steam tray after steam tray, looking for recent fill-ups, traffic around popular items, and sure winners like omelet stations or a guy in a chef’s hat slicing big slabs of meat. Now’s also time for some Belly Space Analysis, where every item’s Tasty Deliciousness is weighed against it’s Projected Stomach Volume. Bread, soup, and salad rarely pass the Belly Space Analysis test. Skipping those means you just gained an extra plate and are on your way.
2. Drink Later. Sugary drinks just fill you up with carbs and cost extra. If you can postpone your Pepsi, then you’ll save belly space for the hot goods.
3. The Sampler. My dad is famous for the sampler plate. Within minutes of arriving he’ll dot a big white plate with small portions of every entree and proceed to say “Hmmm,” a lot while scooping up tiny forkfuls of each to see what will make the cut. You have to have willpower to pull off The Sampler, but it can be very rewarding. You know you aced it when your next plate is just piles of your two favorites. Good on ya.
4. Staggered Trips. If you’re with friends, don’t wait until everybody is done their first plate before uniformly filing up for a second trip together. No, go separately and act as each others eyes and ears out there — whats new, what’s hot, what’s fresh, what’s not. Your friends are doing their job when you see them running back to table to scream “They just brought out more coconut shrimp!” Also, be sure to designate someone at your table to be The Lookout. They should be seated with a clear view of the buffet and raise alarm whenever they see someone coming from the back with a new steam tray.
5. Big Plates Always. Be watchful of the small salad and dessert plates lurking about. Find your secret stash of full-size dinner plates and use them, know them, love them lots. The big plates will let you spread your meal around, and avoid piling things high, which generally results in meat gravy getting all over your salad.
6. One More Egg Roll. When the check arrives, take your time. Slow it right down now and see who still has room. Since you’ve been so busy scarfing your food and staggering trips, now really is the best chance to catch up with your friends. Then after ten or fifteen minutes, someone will likely cave in and say “Okay, one more egg roll.” This is buffet victory.
With these tips plus your personal experiences, you too can master the art of the all-you-can-eat buffet. After that, there’s really no stopping you. So eat all you can, my friend.
Eat all you can.