There is no doubt that buffets are the most convenient way to feed a large crowd. But gone are the days when a caterer could simply offer sausage rolls, sandwiches and quiche to a roomful of people.
Customers want variation in their buffets; the more exotic the better. Caterers are having to be more creative, which is why Indian and Oriental products have become culinary life-savers.
Onion bhajis, spring rolls and samosas are bite-sized and easy to prepare, with most taking no longer than 15 minutes to cook. The addition of these types of food to the buffet also reflects the change in taste of the British public.
Market research group Foodservice Intelligence estimates that about 50% of British consumers eat Indian food, and the UK Indian food industry has an annual turnover of £1.8b (UK Market for Indian Food 1998).
To find out exactly what is required of an Indian or Oriental product that has the potential to appear on a buffet, Chef invited a panel of tasters, drawn from different sectors of the catering industry, to taste five brands of products in the Restaurant 1086 cookery school and demonstration area at Hazlewood Castle, Hazlewood, North Yorkshire.
All products were tasted blind and detailed questionnaires were completed as each item was sampled. Tasters were asked to bear in mind what they required on a professional basis as well as their personal taste, and they were reminded that the products were to be assessed on an individual, rather than a comparative basis.
What makes the ideal buffet product?
Each product was assessed by the tasters on the following criteria:
Visual impression: what did they like or dislike about the overall appearance of the product? Was its appearance unappetising or appetising?
Did the product have an appealing aroma? Did the fillings give off an authentic aroma that matched the stated ingredients?
Texture: what did the tasters like or dislike about the texture?
Flavour: How did the tasters rate a mouthful of the product? Was it too bland, or too spicy? Did the product have plenty of flavour?
Overall rating: bearing in mind cost, quality and value for money, the tasters were asked if they would serve the product in their own establishments.
Pick of the buffet
The freshness and crunchiness of the Favory spring rolls - spicy pork and vegetarian - won over the tasters. They were impressed by the fact that an authentic taste was combined with a good aroma and that the food's crispy appearance translated into crispy pastry.
The importance of visual appearance was stressed by all the panellists and a crispy texture was again particularly noted on the Oriental Gold Chinese Char Sui spring rolls with chicken from Kitchen Range. Another product that stood out was the Authentic Thai Appetisers from Sea Products International, which was commended for its blend of flavours and home-made appearance.
In general, tasters considered that the way the majority of products were cooked let them down. For instance, manufacturers' instructions on some of the items stipulated that they should be oven-baked; this, agreed the panel, ruined the overall taste and in one case led to a product receiving one star rather than the two it would have got had it been deep-fried.
John Benson-Smith is chef-director of the 21-bedroom Hazlewood Castle, Hazlewood, North Yorkshire, and was our host for the buffet taste-test. He has responsibility for two restaurants - the 40-seat Prickly Pear Café and the newly opened 80-seat Restaurant 1086 - as well as for the hotel's cookery school and its banqueting suites, which can cater for up to 200 guests.
Average customer spend per head ranges from £18 in the Prickly Pear to £50 in Restaurant 1086. Costs for a buffet is around £30 a head for in-house home-made products that range from samosas to deep-fried battered chocolate.
Michael Hjort is joint chef-proprietor, along with his wife, Lucy, of Melton's restaurant in York. The restaurant seats about 45 and caters for an affluent but mixed crowd of customers aged 25 and upwards. Hjort says he is considering opening another restaurant in the York area with capacity for up to 60 seats.
Hjort was looking for a "home-made" feel in the buffet products on trial and was keen they did not have a "perfect" manufactured look to them. He was also on the lookout for unusual products not found on standard buffet menus that also had the ability to add value in-house.
Sue Evans is an area support manager with Fairfield Catering. She is responsible for educational catering and for a small section of Jewish clients requiring kosher catering. Nationwide, this covers 320 schools including boarding schools, public schools, grant-maintained schools and sixth-form colleges, catering for roughly 320,000 pupils.
Evans puts on buffets for teachers and school governors at official events as well as at private functions. The average customer spend ranges from £3.50 to £6 per head. Favourite buffet products are king prawns Japanese style, chicken saté, mini pizzas and dim sum.
Evans was looking for buffet products that were at a good cost price to the client, easy to eat with fingers, and had good presentation potential in colour and style.
Jennie Cook is a cookery writer, regional and national cookery TV presenter and also runs a small guesthouse with two bedrooms in York. Her guesthouse caters only for breakfasts to around six guests per day. The bed and breakfast rate is £20.
Cook's main prerequisite for buffet products was a good flavour: but she also believes that a product should be a fair representation of the country it originates from, that is, it should have an authentic taste, aroma and appearance.
Mohammed Aslam is co-owner of a chain of seven Kashmiri restaurants, all called Aagrah, in Yorkshire. They are aimed at the top end of the Indian restaurant market. Although Aslam is in charge of the day-to-day running of the group's Tadcaster restaurant, he is also responsible for group policies and procedures and has overall responsibility for a team of 28 chefs who cater for up to 1,000 meals a day (including take-away meals).
Seating in the seven restaurants averages out at around 80 per unit. For buffets, the chain of eateries usually makes its own food - the most popular being samosas and chicken or vegetable rolls. For taste test purposes, Aslam prioritised taste and appearance in the products on trial.