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Tables of Edible Choice

Restaurant chefs over the years have battled to sway the dining guests’ perceived value for money. Over the years the giving of value had to have had its origins somewhere-- but where? In history and at what point I cannot tell, yet I know it is a common connection of being big, full of variety and more than often to impress somebody.

But in modern times the buffet is usually served as a wedding meal, keeping the costs down on a very expensive day for the bride’s family.

Buffet tables of the eighteenth century French restaurants were situated usually close to the doors so people could view what they would be getting usually for a set price.

However the English would turn these buffet tables into the meal served at the end of the ballroom or close by in a small room. The reason for this was that the people often developed a hearty appetite with all that dancing and flirting. They, too, had borrowed from the French, but whom had the French borrowed from?

Zakuski tables of Russia showed the host’s offerings to his guest who would have traveled many miles in a troika to get to the evening’s festivities. Originally the guest would be greeted by the host, and offered a nibble from the table stocked with hors d’oeuvres and a glass of vodka would wash it down, warming those who had traveled in the cold winters to attend. Only one group of people consumed so much vodka in making toasts that they would be taken off to bed rather than the dance floor. Well, that was the Imperial Guards’ take on the reason vodka was offered.

But one of the Tsars had been an avid fan of the Danes, Swedes and the Dutch so I am guessing that the origins may have been borrowed from the Smorgasbord. You see, at some point in our human history, every nation roamed and they often took the idea on a journey with them. So the Smorgasbord may have become the Zakuski, and then the buffet, but wait, we need a Spanish family member.

Enter the Tapas; small morsels of interesting items such as olives, spicy grilled sausages and local specialities are left on the bar where one would consume his wine or sangria. The intention is that with food you will not be so quickly affected by the effects of the alcohol. How many men might have to fight the bull the next morning? For the flamenco guitar players and singers it added to the evening’s atmosphere.

But the restaurant chef changes the table of offerings to suit the budget and the needs of the people who will consume his food. Smaller, mobile tables came into the fashion of dining.

The rich upper class establishment would have their chefs prepare the offering in a different way. This was the mobile buffet trolley offered as the first course, where the waiting person would push this trolley alongside the guest’s table, describing the ravier dishes contents to the table. On a plate, silver served of course, the items of the dishes selected by the guest. This service often took the load off the kitchen, as the guests would be guided by the waiting person’s selling ability; dishes such as mushrooms a la grecque and the caviar eggs (usually something like a hard-boiled egg, with some mayonnaise and a few red roe eggs and a few black roe eggs imitating caviar). These trolleys would test the cold kitchen chef’s ability to turn the most unappealing items into the most profitable. Artichoke hearts, rollmops, crab claws again dipped with cheap imitation caviar made profit on a weekly basis for the Club I worked at. The chef expected the staff to sell a minimum 60% to the restaurant guests, because Friday and Saturday nights over 200 people would be in expecting to be out in time for the opera or a show.

The ravier trolley has its little cousins helping also. The table gueridon service where the main course was such like a Steak Diane and the flash of the brandy would also make the guests feel as if they had centre stage, returning for the Cherries Jubilee or the Crepes Suzette at the next course of the menu. Or the carving trolley where the carver (Trancheur) then had to portion maximum number of each joint to add to the profit margin. If that was not acceptable, well, you always had the dessert trolley and the cheese board.

Chinese Yum Cha is no different in offering a buffet on the wheel theme; you choosing if the meal component was steamed or deep-fried. Endless offerings are washed down with jasmine tea or wine and beer now.

So maybe the history of the laden table was this - the Vikings and others roamed across Europe to the Far East of Russia, the Mongols took it towards China, Marco Polo and his caravan bought it back to Italy.

The Italians would influence the French and the English, and the Russians would bring it back to the French who by now did have another name for it in a fancier form.

Anyway the table is well stocked and offers varieties of many kinds. But please, if the food is being not kept in a hygienic way, do not recycle it the next day as a cost-cutting exercise as the whole thing might just kill somebody through food poisoning.

Personally, I am not keen on this method of service but in its time it had its place -- I would rather less is more for my meal decision. Just remember who came first with the full laden table is a riddle. The answer could be, due to the culture, by which it is known. So it will be all the above, changed, or modified or simply just who can offer the most or it is to celebrate some occasion.

Smorgasbord, Tapas, Buffet, Yum Cha, and Zakuski all means a lot of food and a table of some description and maybe some are tables on wheels -- even tables in the air where the airline crew offer the ground chef’s temptations, or the air-chef’s interpretation of the meal.

Where will it all end, I ask? Maybe the space chefs of the future will load a screen.

Anne-Marie Hofman
Christian Chef
Sydney, Australia

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