Buffet versus sit downs

During lunch today, I was talking to my mother about what would be the ideal method of serving food during functions. She has always been a major proponent for sit-down lunches with food served in courses, while I was arguing in favour of buffets.

My mother’s argument is that people won’t feel free serving themselves at a buffet. She argues that we are culturally used to being served, to being pampered by hosts, and hence we would eat better if food was brought to our table rather than if we were to go to get the food. She says that in a buffet, a number of people feel hesitant to ask for a refill and the size of the plate (after all, it needs to fit on one hand) combined with this means that most people won’t eat well.

She mentioned in passing that holding out your plate asking someone to put food on it (enjil/jhoota fundaes mean that in most buffets in India there is someone next to the food who serves you) is seen by many people as being akin to begging, and that their “honour code” means that they don’t want to be seen asking for more.

I have several other arguments in favour of buffets, but what I talked about today was that at a sit down lunch, you need to eat in a hurry. Food is served in batches, and hence it is important that everyone finishes eating in good time; good enough time so that those that couldnt get a seat in this batch aren’t kept waiting for so long. The cooks who are serving the food take responsibility of ensuring that a “batch” finishes eating in good time. Rather, they decide when the batch is supposed to end and the cleaners then come in forcing people to wind up.

My argument is that in sit down lunches, the amount you eat is directly proportional to the speed at which you eat, given that the time for each batch is fixed. This implies that if you actually want to have a good meal, you need to eat in quick time, and hence won’t be able to savour it as well as you could. And if you want to savour every morsel and eat slowly, well, you can be rest assured that you won’t have your fill.

Then there is the trade-off between dishes. In a sit down meal, items are brought in courses, and a particular item is served only when it is “in course”. The way the cooks are organized means that it’s extremely tough for them to break course and bring something that only you wanted. Or go back and forth between different courses. More importantly, when you are eating something, you don’t know what is going to follow. Actually, given certain “conventions” you sometimes have a good idea as to what might follow, but no clue regarding the quality of the thing. This point is elaborated by Ravikiran in this blog post.

So my take on sit down meals is that you sit down and mechanically wolf down whatever the cooks serve you. The only choice you have is to waste some food. You need to predict the quality of an item as it is being brought, and then get yourself served the appropriate quantity. And you also need to keep in mind the several items that haven’t been brought yet, and also predict the quality of those.

In a buffet, there are no such problems. You go once and fill your plate with a bit of everything. Then you know what you like. And go again to get more of that. You can eat at your own pace, for there is no one waiting to grab your seat. You can savour every morsel as you ingest it. You even get to choose the order in which you can have the stuff. The only flip side is that each time you want something you might have to stand in a line. However, if the hosts have estimated the numbers and planned well, this too gets eliminated.

So what is your preference? What do you think makes more sense for a largish gathering? Please leave your comments here.

22 thoughts on “Buffet versus sit downs”

  1. Buffets tend to be expensive generally depending on how many times people tend to refill themselves. The current generation people mostly would advocate for buffets – for it will allow them not to waste any food, provided they are sensible when serving themselves the food compared to sit downs, where the suppliers often pour the hot sambar and some stuffs you don’t want to eat on your hands even if you are covering the banana leaf with your hands.

    Also the buffets help one to socialise moving around the eating area freely, discussing arbit stuffs while munching on quality food. So that is a big gain for mostly the junta like us who would like bit of socialising.

    I have a feeling that the old people often find it a pain to keep standing in some cases of buffets where chairs aren’t available in plenty. In such cases, they would advocate for the sit-on and serve types.

    Another hunch I can formulate is that some misers would prefer sit down lunches so that they can serve only once and less quantity of food to large gathering of hungry souls who can’t even complain 😛

    1. i also hate buffets where not enough chairs are available.

      i think buffets in general got a bad name in india because some 10-20 years back they’d make it a point ot REMOVE all the chairs from the dining hall during the buffet!

      and i agree with you on the miser bit also.

  2. I found the reasons your mother gave all new, and I guess I would be from the same generation! Shows how different people can be. The reasons you analyzed were also new to me.

    I have timed a “panthi”…and one serving of a complete meal takes about 25 minutes.. but many caterers now short-cut it by calling people after the first items have already been served, and serve rasam, pAyasam and yogurt in cups…but I agree with you there, that really DOES rush the eater. I have wound up just pecking at the food; and when everything is pre-served, I found that trying not to waste food resulted in waisting food. So I just let the food be, and feel so guilty about that.

    I feel that is food is sit-down-and-be-served, initial servings must be “taste and see” and everything should be served again, and the servers should put things on the leaves ONLY when the diners ask for it.

    Mysooru Huduga said a lot of what I wanted to say. I detest the wastage of food that accompanies “leaf meals”….that’s why I am a proponent of buffets.

    I often joke that I am going to make a wooden arm-with-an-outstretched hand that I will put at my leaf, so that the servers don’t pile on food that I can’t eat, and instead of trying to eat while keeping an eagle eye out so that I am not forcibly served dishes I don’t want, I can eat only the dishes I want, in peace, without holding my left hand out permanently!

    But yes, there are certain things (like rasam shaatham) that cannot be done properly at buffets…and also, yes, older people seem to dislike the stand-and-eat method. They do tell me that they eat less with this method, and don’t like everything running together on a small plate, either.

    Your posts are so interesting that you make me click on them to post a comment,which I rarely do with my Google reader, so having your feed on LJ is taking up a lot of my time! 🙂

    1. I found that trying not to waste food resulted in waisting food.

      bad pun.

      point with serving only samples in first round is that it takes time, which can be a bit of a pain.

      and what i’m proposing is a buffet where there are plenty of chairs and tables available. so that stand and eat thing is taken out. and even in the leaf everything gets mixed up

  3. I second your mother in this case. Mainly because, most buffet managers plan for food capacity and not seating capacity. And I hate standing and eating!!!

    1. as i mentioned in some other comment, i’m talking about a buffet wiht plenty of chairs and tables.

      i completely agree that standing and eating sucks. you can never eat your fill that way.

  4. For extremely slow eaters who still manage to wolf down humongous quantities of food (case in point being yours truly), a buffet system is better than a sit down.

    In addition, while most sensible people would stop after two rounds of the buffet, I would be shameless enough to keep eating until such time that my stomach is happy with the quantity.

    Buffets help you socialize if you’re at a gathering where you know many people, but would rather not be stuck to one bunch at all times. Sit downs would not give you the flexibility of being able to escape from painful company in your vicinity.

    Wastage of food is eliminated a person at a buffet serves himself/herself sensibly, as opposed to at a sit down where some items that will be invariably served – like pickles, salt, the odd curry which does not curry any f(l)avour with those that have to eat it, will invariably end up going waste.

    1. same here. even i go several rounds to the buffet table. but people like my mom never put more than one visit. they think it doesn’t reflect well on their whatever…

      yeah on numerous occasions i’ve been stuck with painmax company in sit downs. haven’t been able to eat properly at all.

  5. I agree with your mother. For me a buffet is the equivalent of a McDonald’s, whereas a sit down place is the equivalent of a fine cuisine restaurant. Making the food arrive at your guests’ table is better than making them come to the food table

    The quantity of food consumed doesnt matter, because the menu is often so large, a small bite from every dish will suffice for 95% of the people. And guests in India are discerning enough to demand more of what they liked, and skip what they dont fancy

    Also what about older people. Indian functions overflow with the grandparents/old uncles types…..and needless to say buffets are not the best places for them

    1. see when the number of people is small, sit down is best. no brainer.

      but in a large gathering, it’s impos to customize the package in sit downs. it’s very likely that you may have asked for extra something but that never arrives. only thing I can think of is to have two rounds of serving for everything. but that slows down the thing badly.

  6. I have the following question – How do cooks estimate how much of each item to make in a buffet? How much wastage is estimated in a buffet?
    In sit-down meals it is easier to estimate the quantity and avoid wastage by –
    multiplying the number of plates with the number of servings estimated per person on an average with the approx quantity of each serving.
    How will such an arrangement work in a buffet?

    1. i completely agree with you on the estimation issue. however I think assuming no item is made especially badly, the law of large numbers ensures that you should be able to forecast how much of each thing is going to be consumed.

      in buffet there’s chance that more food is wasted unserved, while the in-plate wastage is really low compared to sit down.

  7. bad pun

    are there any good ones? 🙂

    Yes, I do think that buffet with plenty of seating is a good way to serve food.

    But I don’t agree that on a leaf everything gets mixed up, unless the people serving do so badly and serve one item on top of another…or the leaf is too small or narrow, which sometimes happens.

  8. We realized this, too, when we went for a buffet lunch to Taj Gateway one Sunday afternoon…and found two of the items at the evening reception we attended at the same place. When we enquired, the hosts at the dinner told us that they had specified something else for the menu, but the hotel said two of those particular dishes were not available, and suggested the two dishes that we saw…great utlization of leftovers, and the reason why I do not like “star hotel” food, they are too efficient for my liking of fresh food! They could not have suggested this if the food had been a leaf-meal…!

    1. wait – you are either hitting reply at the wrong place or the threaded comments plugin isn’t working properly. becasue all your comments seem to be in reply to otehr comments but have appeared at the end.

  9. Quite interesting post actually.

    The first time i saw a sit-down dinner in a function was in Savvy’s wedding actually. In the north, almost 99.99% of functions would have only a buffet. And there is no shame in going 2/3/4 times to take food. As far as elderly are concerned, normally there are enough chairs for them or if they are too old, someone brings food to them in a plate.

    I would anyday prefer a buffet over a sit-down meal. I dont want to be dictated by anyone on order of eating my food as well as how much time i take.

    1. Western post-function dinners are also usually sit-down – though I actually saw this in Malaysia post training – that’s the trouble with working for a bank with operations in Asia but where the entire senior management in support functions like HR is gora. And this also leads to the totally new experience of having to look up your table and your companions on a seating plan.

      Fortunately the people at my table weren’t K.

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