Buffet Dreams

Sometimes you have to leave home to get a perspective on the things you take for granted. For anyone who travels, the hotel breakfast buffet can be an oasis of culinary inspiration, and at other times a scared landscape of desolation. I’m writing this from the table of a Hilton Hotel in Philadelphia with an outstanding buffet in the American style. There is very little innovation here (with the exception of slices of smoked salmon by the yogurt and cereal selections), but the quality is consistently high. Yes, I sampled everything. It’s my responsibility to you, dear reader. You expect nothing less.

The more common breakfast buffet experience is about as pleasant as hospital food. I wouldn’t be surprised if it all didn’t come from the same food service supplier: stale cereal, doughy waffles, cheap breads and rolls, tasteless pastries, rubber eggs, sausages that taste more line spicy candy bars than pork, bacon so thin it crumbles as you try to put it in your plate, watery juices, and brownish water for coffee. In contrast, today’s breakfast had eggs scrambled from something that came in a shell, rather than a paper carton, sausages that a butcher would be proud to call her own, thick, hot, steel-cut oatmeal, really ripe melon, berries and pineapple chunks, fresh breads and pastries that looked like a human had actually made them. Did I mention the smoked salmon? Some of you will remember my post on a breakfast in a hotel in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a few years ago. I’m sorry to say that Philadelphia is too far south on the Atlantic coast for its guests to expect a pot of baked beans in their breakfast buffet. And too far north for them to feast on grits or biscuits and gravy. The lack of a regional identity to the offerings can be forgiven as long as the quality of the usual and customary fare is high, and it was superb.

But we can go even further. The mother of all breakfast buffets is one I encountered in Berlin. It happens to be at the Crown Plaza off Kurfürstendam, the center of the city’s commercial district. This hotel caters to travelers from all over the world. So, it’s breakfast buffet, which is included in the price of the room (a European practice that I wish American hotels would adopt), is the most diverse I have even seen. For travelers from the Atlantic Coast and the, British Isles, there was chocolate ( yeah, that’s a breakfast thing in Holland), kippers, bangers, streaky bacon, mushrooms, and grilled tomatoes. For those from Scandinavia, several kinds of herring, pickles and rye flat breads. For visitors from Eastern Europe and Russian, there were mayonnaise salads, sourdough rye breads and fine salumi. For France, they provided a great baguette and perfectly ripe, white-rind cheeses. But wait! That’s not all. For guests from the Middle East, they offer numerous spreads and salads with fresh pita. Those who have traveled from China and Southeast Asia have a choice of two soups, as well as rice porridge with several savory add-ins. For Japanese diners, there is fragrant steamed rice with natto. They offered perfectly cooked soft boiled eggs in the shell and freshly scrambled eggs in a warmer. A cook in a starched white tunic stood ready to take any egg order you wanted, from poached to omelets of any combination. The coffee was available as a drip brew or as an espresso. A barista stood nearby to assist you in preparing your café au lait with whatever dairy or non-dairy “milk” you prefer. The tea selection was superb. There were red, oolong, and green brews prepared at the perfect temperature. Or you could order a fresh pot from the barista. The juices were all fresh pressed. The fruit selection was seasonally appropriate and carefully prepared. The pastries were hand-made viennoise. The tea cakes were of the drier, intensely flavored variety preferred by Central Europeans. The croissants were so fresh that they shattered into an explosion of flakes. We had four nights in this hotel and four breakfasts. We never ate the same breakfast twice.

What message was this buffet sending to the guests? “You are welcome here” might be an obvious answer, but it isn’t the only one. “We are a distinctive and discriminating establishment that knows the world and the diversity of its breakfasts” is another one. After all this hotel is located in that part of Berlin that has always been considered a showplace of consumption, from the Kaufhaus des Westens diagonally across the street the Europa Center one block away. But there are more. “Guests at our hotel are comfortable with diversity and enthusiastic about sampling breakfast items from around the world, including those of your home country.” And finally, “We invite you to travel a little further and experience the breakfasts of another land at our sumptuous buffet.” Can you imagine such messages being conveyed at the breakfasts of the highway hotels in the Untied States? Or even the more stately city hotels, like the one I am currently staying in? This strikes me as just one more sign that the current jingoism in pubic forum in the U.S. was predetermined in the breakfast offerings of the nation’s hotels. Breakfast is destiny!

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