It’s Showtime at the Hotel Buffet

The best & worst food concept that was ever conceived and which has gone on to eventually become the most universally successful ideas of all time has to be…the buffet. Once in a while there comes along some clowns who make you wish that you never had even heard of the concept “buffet”, let alone have one in your hotel.

After cooking up a storm all day to prepare the most extensive spread, we were unfortunately having a very slow night. As I was wondering what I was going to do with all the left over food and at the same time balance my books, up to the entrance strolled a group of 5 what can be mostly described as “Sumo Wrestlers”. “Here comes trouble”, I thought to myself. As soon as they walked through the door (sideways I might add) it was evident that these people were die-hard buffet eaters, who were the worst possible customers imaginable for this concept. They were going to pay $35 and make very sure that they got their money’s worth….and more. They would eventually eat you out of house and home and if they became regulars, would inevitably place you out of business and have you begging in a food line.

The word “bankruptcy” was the first thing that came to mind when I heard one of them say, “Good evening Chef”, “Would you mind if we had a look at your buffet”? Trying to talk them out of the buffet was of course, a waste of time. Trying to convince them to order A la Carte, where the portions were controlled to be fair to both parties was even more a waste of breath. After circling the buffet like a flock of vultures, they stood still for a second while trying to fathom whether it was worth the price. I closed my eyes and chanted “A la Carte, A la Carte, A la Carte” like a mantra of sorts. Then came the depressing and moral gutter-lowering words that would emotionally scar me for years, “I think we will take the buffet tonight”.

After this night, I knew that I was going to need some professional counseling, but I tried to hold it together as long as I could for the sake of my staff. I walked over to my cooks, whose heads were already hanging in total despair after hearing the verdict. In trying to lighten the situation that was ready to blow like a powder keg, I whispered to them: “A herd of grazing Wildebeests just arrived and they love the look of your buffet”. You’d better tell the other chefs to start cooking before those guys start eating otherwise you will never be able to keep up! ” “How many people did you cook for tonight?” I asked fearfully, “Fifty Chef” they sheepishly replied. “And how many customers did we have before these bunch of twits arrived”, “seven Chef”. “Well the food’s not going to be enough”, we are in deep trouble tonight”.

After the big guys wobbled over to the buffet counter, I was absolutely flabbergasted with the way they went through the buffet like a plague of swarming locusts, devouring everything in sight. We had the chefs inside cooking up a storm and service staff running back and forth trying to keep food on the table but to no avail. I wandered over to their table to exchange some pleasantries, as I reached their table they already started to wind it up. One of them rubbed his very round tummy and his trousers really looked stressed holding in his mid-section and the buttons were holding on for dear life. At any time, the buttons was going to give way and go “Twang” shooting across the room like buckshot fired from a gun & maybe take out someone’s eye.

“Chef, the food is not as good tonight as it usually is, I think that some of your guys are off their game,” said the one in distressed pants. “You mean to tell me that you have been here before?” I was totally shocked. “Yes many times, we are regulars”. I stormed away from the table looking for the manager and explained to him that actually he should have banned these people from coming here. “We can’t do that chef, on what grounds can you ban people from a buffet?” “If you go to any casino” I retorted, “And you continuously win, they ban you correct”. I was really trying to make up my own logic to oust these grazing beasts. “What is the difference here?” I asserted. “They beat the establishment every single time they come here by reducing the restaurant to the poverty line and what is worse, we let them do it without a whimper”.

I saw one of the guys motioning for me to go over so I trotted back to their table. I thought the best way to diffuse the situation was to distract him, so before he started out I butted in. “Where are you from sir”? I asked, hoping they were going to announce they were moving somewhere else. “Next Door” replied the WWF wannabe, “I know that you may be surprised but I can assure you that I am from this town”. I thought to myself: “I am not surprised because you are the size of this town!” “Why don’t you try the chicken curry chef, it is not so good”, he said while slurping a small sized oyster. As he tried to swallow it in one go, he shook his head back and forth like a pelican swallowing a wriggling fish. “I would love to, but there is none left as you have finished off the whole lot”, I said matter-of-factly. “I beg your pardon!” said the Penguin, spraying dark brown juice from the oyster all over his new slick white T-shirt. “There was not much there anyway, just enough for…”, “Fifty people sir” I interjected.

“I am a growing young man and need to eat properly”, he said defending himself. I could not help but think to myself that he could not possibly want to grow any more and that his buffet table-sized backside did not need any further encouragement. I rolled my eyes, anticipating a request for a discount.

“Actually” he said sheepishly, “I think that the buffet is not value for money”. I called it right—I saw this coming a mile away. There is always one that will start to complain from the start to build his case to rob you blind like a robber without a gun.

“What is wrong with the food sir?” “The buffet is not that good and definitely not worth what you are charging”. “Can you be a little more precise? is the roast beef over cooked, the seafood not fresh”, I asked trying to retain my composure. “No, the whole buffet is no good” was his only assessment. “Well, as we are only charging you $35 for the buffet and you have eaten” I closed my eyes as if ringing it up on a mental cash register, “around $55 worth of food!”, I then opened my wallet and gave him $5. “What is this for, is it discount?” he asked with a look of surprise. “Actually it isn’t, I figure if I pay you to go and eat somewhere else I can save us some money”. He looked at me astounded for a second and then he started to howl with laughter.

“Chef, you are the funniest guy I have ever met”, Go and eat somewhere else! I have changed my mind the entertainment is fantastic here, you have just made us customers for life”! As I walked away from the table, I looked at the manager who was in tears of laughter after watching me crash and burn. The worst part was that after I left the table I realized the twit had very discreetly pocketed the money I offered him. Three hours later when the buffet was destroyed, they moved on to dessert. The only thing that was not consumed was the water from the ice-cream scoop holder. After three gallons of piping hot Italian coffee, they were ready to go and asked for the bill. I told the waiter that I would like to take the bill over myself, to bid them good riddance. I went over to their table, a broken man, devoid of any energy as the battle had taken its toll and wiped me out.

“There, there chef, you look tired” one of them said emphatically. “Yes, I surrender, its over-you win” was all that I could muster. “I have never, ever seen people eat like that before, you guys are record breakers”. “I will probably lose my job but what they heck”. “Lose your job? what are you talk
ing about?”. This is the best dinner we have ever had, we get this size because we like to eat good food. It is a compliment to you and your chefs that there is nothing left and trust me, the customers tomorrow are going to be happy when all the food that is presented is fresh”.

I looked at him and reflected on the truth of his words. Big people like to eat and it is a compliment that they choose your place do so. When considering food cost, overheads, value-for-money factors and recipes, we sometimes overlook that the most important thing to remember is that eating out should be an overall dining experience with good food and service, filled with entertainment and fun. If the overall ambience combined with the food and service is just right, you will always come out on top in the end. So now, before I go out to face that pain-in-the-neck guest, I always remember to think to myself “It’s Show Time!”

It’s all in the Game

As it was a pre-opening and we had time on our hands, my Executive Sous Chef suggested that since it was now winter in Hong Kong, I might like to go with him to a game restaurant to explore possible menu ideas. Not really knowing what he was talking about, I went along anyway because I was keen to try as many new things as possible. We arrived at the appointed restaurant, which was located down a back street, or more rather some dark alley, such that you would never be able to find it a second time even if you wanted to. The owner and chef came out to greet us, and told us that if we were willing he would like to play a little game with us. He would bring out the food and as we finished each course, we would have to guess what we had just eaten. It sounded a little scary to me given that this was Hong Kong, but as I did want to try things, and was also keen to fit in, I went along with it.

The first dish we ate was a very strong smelling, yet clear soup, which the chef said was, “Good for the body”, which part I wondered.
He asked us what we thought it was. Well I surmised, it was a game restaurant, and it was a soup. “Pheasant” I said.

“What, what the hell is pheasant?” came the reply.

I knew then that I was in trouble, and this was going to be a long, long night.

Our host went into the kitchen and brought out a large cage on a wheeled trolley, covered by a dirt white blanket. He did his trick of pulling away the blanket like a television magician, revealing a huge, slimy, long-tongued, uglier that anything I had seen…lizard. My stomach started to turn over straight away and I thought I was going to throw up on my shoes, and for that matter, on everyone else’s.

Then came the next course, a small bowl of some kind of stronger smelling heavy stew. I nibbled at it since my appetite was already suffering under the enormous strain. “Game Restaurant”, I whispered to myself, “I’ll give him GAME restaurant.”

Out came the dreaded cage once again, and away went the blanket to reveal a beautiful Snowy White Owl, it’s huge eyes looking deep into mine. That, my friends was the last straw.

I didn’t care any more if I was going to fit in or not. Dinner was over for me and, as the next course came out, I announced that I was out of the game. So as not to cause offence, I decided to ask for something safe instead, and with which I was familiar.

“Hey, how about just giving me some chicken chow mein” I asked pleadingly.

The manager looked at me extremely confused, “Chicken chow what?” he said. “Chow mein” I reiterated.

“Are you trying to be funny?”, he responded angrily. “If you don’t like the food, I understand but there is no reason to be rude.”

“What the heck was he talking about?” I asked Tan my assistant, and then he told me that he had been living in Hong Kong all his life and he had never heard of this dish. What was worse, “chow” translated from Cantonese to English is “stink!”

For the full years I was in Hong Kong, I was unable to find a single restaurant that had heard of the famous “Chicken Chow Mein,” much less had it on their menu.

My protestations of being full had still not spared me from the third course. This was another thick stew, which the owner told us, “Is made especially to keep the body warm during winter,” while pulling away the trolley curtain to reveal a somewhat scabby-looking dog.

This time I tried a different track.

“I think I must have eaten something which did not agree with me at lunch earlier today.” I mustered.

This at least seemed to do the trick. Though still trying to extend hospitality and feeling sorry for me being unable to eat the delights of the main meal, he brought out some steamed prawns and fish insisting that it would make me feel better. Guess what, my appetite was indeed encouraged back to life!

The whole experience showed me though that if you have the taste for something and the money to pay for it, you can find it and eat it in Hong Kong.

Hello world!

Chef's Tales by Michael Saxon
Chef's Tales by Michael Saxon
Chef’s Tales follows in the best tradition of Bill Bryson, Frances Mayes, Peter Mayle, Michael Palin and other entertaining writers of life and travels.

It is hoped that Chef’s Tales can help enable young hospitality professionals prepare themselves for their entrance into this exciting industry by giving them much needed examples of the life they are going to lead.  Young hoteliers will learn from the experiences witnessed by reading Chef’s Tales and every experienced hotelier will also enjoy reading Chef’s Tales as they will be able to relate to most if not all of the stories.

Michael is contactable at michael.saxon@e-o-hotel.com