​Reflections on the Buffet

Last night, I celebrated Father’s Day by taking my father out to the restaurant of his choice. He decided to go to Tomei’s, a Japanese/Chinese open buffet serving a wide spread of options. I don’t typically eat at places like this because I know they will be packed, the quality of food will be subpar, and I come out stuffed because I don’t have a gauge of how much food I actually ate. But being a good son, I obliged to take him out there.

When we were seated, I looked around at the crowd. There were tables and seats packed in a large, dimly lit room full of families. The buffet line was barely tolerable with long waits and impatient people who cut in line in order to satisfy their cravings rather than abide to the unspoken rule of lines. It’s as if respect were thrown out the door and indecency was invited in.

I finished my third half-plate of food and stopped myself from eating more. There was no point in over-stuffing myself with previously frozen crab legs, under appreciated sea urchin, or under ripe watermelon. What’s the use of trying to stuff myself to the brim? I try to stick with the 60% rule of eating to 60% satiety, or at least the perception of it. I look at those around me, and I see they’ve lost control, allowing their cravings to dictate their actions. Thoughtless actions lead to lower empathy with the people around us. I remember a buffet I was at in Thailand, most of the customers went over to the buffet serving station with no care about shoving other people out of the way to fill their plate. It was rude and disheartening because I felt like I was being treated as an obstacle in their way.

Service workers are also have less empathy to those around them. Since the customers don’t serve as good examples of how to behave, it affects how the service workers behaves, and vice versa. This can be reflected in the care and attention given to the food. At Tomei’s, I thought the quality could have been better. And that’s not saying I want something top-class; I want the people preparing and cooking my food to have the care and attention they would give feeding their own children. I tip a barista something large when they take the time and actually brew a nice cup of tea or coffee. One of my favorite restaurants from the past year is a Guatemalan restaurant that serves hand-made tortillas, and you can buy them at an affordable price, i.e one dollar sign on Yelp. They knew quality, and their customers respected that. Couldn’t Tomei’s have that?

Let’s be clear. I’m not chastising buffets. I think there are some great buffets out there. I live by an extraordinary Indian lunch buffet that serves some of the best tandoori I’ve ever had. The cooks stick with the few dishes they know how to make best and make a lot of it. You can tell the cashier genuinely cares about your experience at the restaurant. At Tomei’s, I found myself rejecting most of the food because I knew it wasn’t going to be worth it. How could you mix dim sum with sushi? They just don’t go together and they’re two different disciplines.

Maybe I’m tooting my own horn because I have these cuisines on separate occasions and maybe I’m the wrong audience for this place. And if that’s the case, that’s fine. This buffet doesn’t need my business in order to survive. Last month, on Mother’s day, they had a three hour wait for those arriving ten minutes after opening time. I’d like to think that buffets like this are a gateway drug, and eventually the customers find something they really like and go out to find a restaurant that specializes in that thing. To those people, I am delighted to open up my own culture’s food to them. But I draw the line in the inexcusable behavior of thoughtless actions that negatively effect the experience of other customers. What’s the point when you’re trying to eat your food while being angry at the person seated next to you?