By combining an eye for design with a keen understanding of their clients' needs, many of today's cutting-edge event professionals are transforming buffet tables into interactive works of art.
Shopping, traveling and reading magazines aren't just diversions for Niki Leondakis, senior vice president of restaurants for the Kimpton Hotel and Restaurant Group, based in San Francisco — they're also educational activities. She says she picks up buffet design ideas when she's browsing shoes and handbags, touring exotic locales, or poring over Architectural Digest and fashion magazines. “All those things influence how you can put things together to make a creative impact,” she adds.
Bruce Mangual, director of catering at the Hotel Monaco, Denver, turns to his own surroundings — the renovated early 20th-century buildings that house the Hotel Monaco as well as the hotel's art deco interior — for design concepts. Old steamer trunks with hotel stickers from around the world, antique posters and postcards, and pewter bowls may turn up in buffets created by Mangual and his staff.
The opulent buffets of glitzy Las Vegas inspire Patrick Colombo, senior vice president of food and beverage operations for Wyndham International, based in Dallas. He advises caterers to visit the city every so often for ideas, adding, “They do theming better than anybody.”
Just as important as the event producer's inspiration are the client's expectations, notes Ginger Kramer, creator of Buffet Blueprint — an instructional CD-ROM — and owner of Coast Special Event Architects in San Jose, Calif. When a group of engineers asked for a beer garden buffet as the German component of a “seven-country”-themed event she was producing for them, Kramer created a variation on the theme. Instead of blue-and-white-checkered tablecloths and “girls in braids,” Kramer designed a beer garden “that has a high-tech look to it, that has neon … that has a sleek architectural look because that's what the engineers would like.”
Leondakis says that a client's needs won't always readily be apparent — even to the client. In order to get a clear picture of exactly what kind of buffet will succeed, “You have to probe the client to tell you: What do you want the overall impact to be? How do you want [your guests] to feel when they enter the room and see the buffet?” she says. “What do you want them to be saying when they leave?”
When designing buffets for events in private homes, Sandra Ross, creative director for Design Cuisine in Arlington, Va., likes to coordinate elements from her collection with the client's home decor “so the event doesn't look too commercial.” For larger events, Ross and her team set up trial buffets and then work with clients to “fine-tune the look.”
Steve Kemble, owner of Dallas-based Steve Kemble Event Design, considered input from a team of event professionals when he created a 15-foot ice table as the focal point of a Modern Day Fairy Tale winter ball his company produced. For this buffet, Kemble and his crew — which included caterer The Food Co. and ice-maker Bifulco's Vanishing Sculptures, both of Dallas — crafted a curved, detailed ice bar, topped with molded-ice serving platters filled with fresh seafood.
Corinda LeClair, director of catering for the Hotel Monaco, Seattle — sister property to Mangual's Monaco in Denver — says that being able to serve smaller groups of guests has helped her staff create “unique, unforgettable schematics for buffets.” Her personal favorite: a Lemons and Lavender buffet created for a surprise 40th birthday party. The event featured a buffet table lighted by candles mounted in carved-out lemons, baskets heaped with fresh lemons and lavender, and menu items such as lavender-and-lemon sorbet and rosemary-crusted lamb.
For Paula Gild of Los Angeles-based Good Gracious! Events, a Fantasy Desserts buffet represents some of the company's most gratifying work. After a brainstorming session with the client, the Good Gracious team created a dessert buffet designed to make guests feel “removed from reality into this really fun, fanciful land where everything looked kind of surreal.” So much so, Gild says, that holiday cookies were presented as “little ornaments you could take off the tree and eat.”
Design Cuisine's Ross proudly recalls a buffet designed by company owner Bill Homan that featured celadon porcelain plates and lacquer serving pieces atop custom-made Asian chow tables that were accented by a hand-rubbed, red lacquer chinoiserie finish. “Of course the food was Asian,” she says. “It was a truly remarkable event.”
RESOURCES:Coast Special Event Architects, 408/244-9700; Design Cuisine, 703/979-9400; Good Gracious! Events, 323/954-2277; Hotel Monaco, Denver, 303/294-3022; Hotel Monaco, Seattle, 206/516-5007; Kimpton Hotel and Restaurant Group, 415/397-5572; Steve Kemble Event Design, 214/943-5949; Wyndham International, 214/863-1661
For archived articles on buffets click on the following links:
- The Art of the Buffet
By Lisa Hurley; April 2000