The buffet is back: How to style a table spread

An autumnal buffet with porchetta and trifle (far right) 'heroes'.
An autumnal buffet with porchetta and trifle (far right) 'heroes'. Photo: Cesar Echeverri

Whether in response to the modern loneliness epidemic, or just a case of retro-resurgence, the buffet is having another moment of culinary glory.

The 2019 version is more curated than its "pot luck" predecessor. Attention to every presentation detail – from on-trend plates, to colour palette and cutlery – is important in the modern iteration. Yet both versions remain unified in their objective: to bring people together in a relaxed, convivial atmosphere.

Marcus Longinotti, a concept and experience curator for luxury fashion, art and philanthropic brands, says the reason for the home buffet's resurrection is two-fold.

The menu, tone and style is inspired by the colours of burnt orange and hunter green.
The menu, tone and style is inspired by the colours of burnt orange and hunter green. Photo: Cesar Echeverri

"Quite simply, the buffet is fun. The ad-hoc interaction at the table introduces a natural element of theatre to any event," he says.

"Also, design aficionados understand dining is a natural extension of your style and the best dining experiences are multi-sensory. The aesthetic drama of a buffet showcases creative flair and ups the ante for the senses."

Fashion plates: How to style a buffet

People eat with their eyes, so the "tablescape" is as important as the taste of the food. Practicality is also key. There is no point having a delicious looking trifle without the required serving tools. Make sure you create space for napkins, cutlery and plates as well as the platters.

Deconstructed pumpkin pies (front) and poached quince and gingerbread trifle with maple cream and candied almonds.
Deconstructed pumpkin pies (front) and poached quince and gingerbread trifle with maple cream and candied almonds. Photo: Cesar Echeverri

The eye should travel: The eye naturally moves from left to right. Create a "visual moment" for each stage of the dining experience. Put the serving station (plates and cutlery) at the far left, followed by the main savoury dishes, cheese and then dessert at the far right.

Hero status: Each visual moment should have one "hero" dish. Here the porchetta is the hero of the savoury dishes, while at the other end of the table a poached quince and gingerbread trifle takes centre stage.

It's all about layering: The interplay of different heights and different textures creates visual interest. Get creative with how you elevate. Turn a bowl upside down and use it as a stand for a platter. Roll and group napkins together.

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Decorative notes: Once you have placed the food, backfill the table with decorative elements: flowers, fruit, and foliage. You want the table to look abundant.

Too much is not enough: The buffet is by nature opulent. Guests should return to the feast two or three times. The random interaction at the buffet table is what makes it fun. It gives guests a chance to talk with people other than those they are seated with, or an excuse to step away from a boring conversation.

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Gone are the days where it was acceptable to lump salmon mousse next to the beef stroganoff and chicken a la king. The key to a modern buffet is to ensure that every dish works together.

Sophie Barlow, director of The Caterer Sydney, says many factors come into play when designing the perfect buffet menu.

"Seasonality, occasion, demographics are all really important when it comes to designing a menu. It's bad form not to understand the needs of your guests," she says. Check to see how many recently converted vegans you have before deciding on porchetta.

"As a general rule, we try to have two to three hero dishes at different stages of the dining journey, then complementary side dishes fill out the menu."

It is also a good idea to have some dishes that can be prepared in advance, allowing the host to dedicate time to styling the table. All the food should be on the buffet as the guests arrive – with the possible exception of one hero element. The placing of the hero dish – such as a sizzling, hot-roasted porchetta – adds to the theatre of the night and signals to guests that it is time to start eating.

Italian porchetta flavoured with garlic, fennel seeds and fresh herbs.

Porchetta flavoured with garlic, fennel seeds and fresh herbs. Photo: Cesar Echeverri

Porchetta

Start this dish the day before you intend to serve it. You'll need a ball of kitchen twine to tie the porchetta and a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature.

INGREDIENTS

1 whole boneless pork belly (about 3-4kg)

5g fennel seeds

3g whole black peppercorns

5 cloves garlic, crushed

1 bunch thyme, chopped

1 bunch rosemary, chopped

2g dried Greek oregano

20g salt flakes

4g Aleppo pepper

4g smoked paprika

zest of 2 lemons

extra salt flakes for salting the skin

METHOD

1. Toast the fennel seeds and peppercorns and lightly crush in a mortar and pestle. In a bowl add the crushed garlic, chopped herbs, lemon zest and 20g salt flakes, along with the spices.

2. Place the pork belly skin-side down on a board and trim away any excess fat.

3. Rub the spice mix into underside of the belly. Carefully roll the belly lengthways with the skin on the outside. Tie around the roll tightly with kitchen twine starting about 1cm in from one end, then keep tying at 4cm intervals all the way along the roll. If any filling escapes, push it back in.

4. Cook in a steam oven at 90C for about 2½ hours until the core temperature reaches 65C. If you don't have a steam oven you can create a similar effect by cooking the pork on a roasting rack set inside a baking tray with 500ml boiling water in the bottom of the tray to create steam. Cover the whole tray with foil and cook at 180C for 2½ hours or until the core temperature reaches 65C.

5. Remove from the oven and cool in the fridge overnight with the porchetta uncovered.

6. The next day, remove the trussing and score through the skin with a sharp knife, 2cm deep at 1cm intervals. Rub extra salt flakes into the skin and preheat the oven to 220C.

7. Place porchetta on a roasting rack and cook for about 30 mins, turning the tray halfway through to create crispy crackling on all sides. Turn down the temperature down to 150C and cook for a further 40-50 mins. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 20 mins, uncovered, before carving.

Serves up to 20

Get the look

Style a gorgeous buffet with these key pieces:

1. Cutipol cutlery, 24-piece set, RRP $799, francalia.com.au

2. Ceramic dinner plates, $49 each, houseoforange.com.au

3. Statement vase, $400, cultdesign.com.au

4. Salad bowl, $88, cultdesign.com.au

5. Candle holder, $65, hayshop.com.au

6. Tri-colour vase (used for lavoche), $794, cultdesign.com.au

7. Sferico glasses (used for deconstructed pumpkin pie), $65 each, cultdesign.com.au

8. True colour vases (used for cutlery), from $343, cultdesign.com.au

Styling: Marcus Longinotti & Sarah Wormwell; Food: The Caterer Sydney; Location: Welcome Dose, Rosebery