Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This holds especially true when serving food at a formal buffet or a potluck supper. Whether setting a buffet table from your own kitchen or arranging dishes for a potluck supper, appearance can change a culinary mistake into a masterpiece.
Space permitting, the buffet table should be placed in the center of the room. However, if space is limited, the table may be along the side of the room.
A long buffet table, in the center of a room, provides access from all sides and will accommodate the largest group of guests in a timely fashion. If not, with the table along an outer edge, space should be made for the servers to replenish from behind.
Once the placement of the main buffet table is determined, cover the table with a cloth. Ideally, the cloth will extend to the floor on all sides presented to your guests.
The buffet table should then be set in the following order going around the table, if possible, or from one end to the other.
1) Dinner plates and/or bowls
2) Rice, Noodles or starch based dishes
3) Main dishes, meats, casseroles, hearty soups, etc.
4) Hot and/or cold vegetables
7) Relishes, condiments, dressings, etc.
8) Eating utensils
Beverages, cups or glasses and additional napkins should be placed on a serving table remote from the main buffet table. If possible, it is ideal to set beverages on each dining table.
If dessert will be served plan to prepare yet another serving table in much the same fashion as the buffet table was prepared. Additional use of levels, layers and decorative items will fill the space not utilized for desserts if serving a single sheet cake or similar large item. Dessert plates, napkins and utensils should be placed at one end.
The secret to a fabulous display is never to place all the food on one level surface. It gives the appearance of bringing livestock to a trough.
Prior to bringing out the food, the buffet table should be prepared. Create all of your levels, steps, heights and valleys. Large books, empty baking dishes turned upside down, and sturdy but shallow boxes are appropriate. Allow sufficient space so dishes won’t easily be knocked off and then cover the created surfaces with additional fabric or table cloths.
Indicate where food platters or bowls can be placed by setting empty dishes of comparable size or chargers to hold the actual dish.
Use decorative items, suited to your theme, to further raise some dishes above the others. I find that plant stands are ideal for serving trays on a buffet table. Tiered plates, cake pedestals, even flowerpots turned upside down, can also be used to raise the food above the flat surface of the buffet table. The possibilities are endless.
Once you have created a multitude of levels for the food, use unexpected items to fill in the spaces between the serving plates. It will, of course, depend on your theme. Try to use a variety of sizes and textures when creating an attractive stage for the food.
Create an appealing display.
Lighting is important. If possible, use a variety of candles, twinkle lights or lamps to brighten the buffet table. Consider placing twinkling light strands under clouds of tulle or lace down the center of a long table. Create warmth and light using like colored candles of different shapes and sizes. Using small decorative lamps or oil-based lanterns can create a very romantic ambiance.
Remember, an enjoyable meal is not completely dependent upon the quality, taste or variety of the food. This is especially important when you do not control the food, as in the case of a potluck.
If a multitude of guests are bringing food for a potluck, it is best to have the food collected in a kitchen or ancillary room for organization prior to being placed on the buffet or serving tables. In any case, sort the dishes according to the sections of the buffet table and place a serving utensil with each dish. If dealing with more food than expected in any given category, plan on replacing dishes when they are emptied.
By setting an organized but exciting and interesting buffet table, your guests will find that serving themselves is more of an adventure in discovery than a chore.