Dinner banquets in the Middle Ages were highly theatrical events -- food was sometimes brought in by a procession of servants with flaming torches accompanied by blaring trumpets. By the 19th century, the banquet had evolved into a buffet meal laid out on a sideboard (buffet means "sideboard" in French); people would help themselves, taking food back to the table to eat. Today, buffet entertaining offers a graceful combination of food and decoration. Knowing how to arrange a buffet table that presents your holiday foods beautifully and allows guests to serve themselves easily is the key to a successful buffet gathering.
Setting the table
The beauty of the buffet table is that it can be set up for any meal, including brunch and desserts, and any size of gathering. However, success depends on an efficient set-up. Here are some suggestions.
• Make traffic flow easily: for more than 20 guests, set up the table so people can serve themselves from both sides. For effortless self-service, place plates at one end of the table and napkins and cutlery at the other.
• For visual interest, vary the height and shape of objects on the table. Use a selection of tureens, platters and cake stands; stack plates high and display a centrepiece. Don't be afraid to use a tall centrepiece. Unlike at a seated dinner, you don't have to worry about a centrepiece impeding conversation.
• When possible, serve food that doesn't require a knife, only a fork or spoon.
• For a casual buffet, group flatware in baskets, urns, pails or glass jars. For an elegant touch, roll individual sets of cutlery in napkins and tie with festive red or gold ribbon.
• It's always a good idea to use hot plates to keep food warm, or serve hot food in small dishes that can be replenished often.
• For added convenience, set up a separate table for drinks. Also, if your budget allows, hire a waiter so that guests won't have to keep getting up during the meal.
• Save yourself from having to clear the main table by setting up a separate table for dessert and hot beverages in another room, perhaps a den or living room.
Buffet dos and don'ts
Dee Gibson of Gibson & Lyle Fine Catering in Toronto offers easy entertaining ideas for making your buffet table a holiday hit.
DO set the table in the same order you would for a sit-down dinner, starting with the appetizers, then following with main-course dishes.
DO decorate your table for the occasion. Intersperse pots of herbs, tall bowls of fruit and seasonal flowers. For a less traditional holiday look, display pomegranates, lychees, pears or figs. Festive boughs and large bowls of glass balls or other ornaments also add texture to a table.
DON'T be afraid to use different kinds of table linens or to show off a dining table with oversize placemats and table runners under hot items.
DON'T overdo it. Stick to one colour scheme or decorating theme so your table has continuity.