Buffet meals survived COVID, but they shouldn't have

I had heard the buffet was dead but obviously this message hadn't reached the Maldives.

The breakfast feast at the Four Seasons Resort Landaa Giraavaru was laid out across two large rooms, featuring dozens of dishes from many cultures around the world – Chinese dumplings and congee, Middle Eastern dips, breads and halva, Parma ham, salads, French cheese, cereals and dried fruits, sausages, bacon, smoked salmon, sushi, croissants and cinnamon buns, to name just a fraction of it.

There was a fresh tropical fruit station, a noodle station and a team of cooks preparing eggs, pancakes, waffles and Indian dishes to order. I was so dazzled by it all, I wandered around for half an hour before I picked up my first bite.

The buffet was not just extravagant, it was unexpected. When I'd travelled in Europe just a few months ago, most hotels had returned to table service for breakfast.

In Singapore, where I'd stopped on my way to the Maldives, the famous breakfast at Raffles no longer included a full buffet, although five-star table service was delivered with its usual formal aplomb. Two Australian hotels I stayed at this year, the Hilton in Sydney and Crystalbrook Flynn in Cairns, did offer buffet breakfast, but in both cases the offerings were limited in scale, modest.

For a moment there, many cruise lines nixed self-serve buffets due to health and safety issues. Lining up for food while not physically distanced, breathing all over it, touching serving cutlery with poxy fingers – all these things turned the act of serving yourself breakfast into a potential super spreader event.

The buffet seemed to have become another victim of the pandemic, a thing of the past – at its worst, excessive, wasteful and unsanitary. Or so I thought.

But the buffet is not dead yet and may never be.

Cruise lines have swiftly dropped the crew-served meals and most are offering self-serve buffets once more. And many people are happy with that. Someone to serve you also means someone to judge you when you pile too much food on your plate or return for the third or fourth helping.

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Of course, that's the problem with buffets. "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach," my parents used to say when I was a child and unfortunately that's as true today as it was then.

The concept of the buffet is less about sustenance than it is about choice. It's also about reward. Treating yourself. And, in a funny way, it's about value. "Yes, I paid a lot for that cruise or that hotel room but look at all the food I got to eat! Even if I didn't know I wanted it."

It's a visual and sensual enticement that's guaranteed to have you put more on your plate than you need. I would be perfectly happy with the bowl of porridge and a cup of coffee that I have each morning at home but faced with a lavish smorgasbord I turn into Augustus Gloop. I want a taste of everything.

I've learnt restraint but it still comes with a side dish of guilt.

In encouraging overeating, the buffet feast is not good for any of us. Or indeed the planet. It's a kind of a drug, actually. If you smoked it, it would be banned.

Cruises seem to be the worst culprits, as passengers lurch from one buffet to the next, mostly out of boredom, and then complain afterwards about expanding waistlines. You're a captive eater on a cruise, unless you have formidable self-discipline. I often wonder what the hard-working staff, often from poorer, developing nations, think of the guests staggering around with plates piled high with carbs and fats. I bet I know.

It is the epitome of wastefulness. Leftovers on ships can't be reused and are usually liquefied, disposed of in port, or dumped out to sea away from coastlines. Even the making of food that's not consumed is wasteful, if you consider energy use in every stage of food sourcing, production and cooking.

Excess food sometimes is distributed to organisations such as OzHarvest or to staff, which is what happens at the Maldives resort. But anything that's been on a guest's plate must be thrown out, whatever the circumstances.

When I'm faced with a buffet now, I only take what I intend to eat and clean my plate. It's crazy that in our prosperity we've gone so far away from this basic principle.

lee.tulloch@traveller.com.au

See also: Killed by COVID-19, the hotel buffet has made a comeback

See also: ​Revealed: What happens to the leftovers at the hotel breakfast buffet