'Come Buffet With Me' by Keri Fuller

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'Come Buffet With Me' by Keri Fuller

Keri and her team step up to the Leiths Diploma buffet challenge after a thrilling three days of delicious food prepared by their peers. The perfect chance to suss out the competition... Foundation Term, Week 8.

Week 8. I’ve got the knack of time plans, sort of conquered short crust pastry and tamed the beast of crème anglaise. As for the predicted emotional perils of week 7… pah! That was nothing compared to surviving Crepe Suzette-gate and Marzi-pain! 

Ceiling-height beurre noisette flambé notwithstanding, I was starting to hone skills and notch up a few five out of fives. But, just as we were getting on top of the seemingly relentless assignments, full-days of cooking and looming assessments, buffet week was upon us.

On the plus side, it meant three days of fabulous food, cooked by our peers; a chance to suss out the competition and comment on their efforts. But it also meant cooking one ourselves, and being subjected to their scrutiny and criticism in turn. Come dine with me… on steroids.

‘Buffet’ is such an innocent, pleasant-sounding word, conjuring up colours, aromas, flavours… surfeit. We may have been lulled by the sumptuous spread prepared with apparent ease by Annie and David in the demonstration; perhaps we’ve become accustomed to cooking one-person portions in class. In any case, nothing prepared us for the task of having to get eight minds in one accord, let alone bring a menu for 32 in at £4 a head. It was a sobering exercise in compromise and reality. 

I am ashamed to admit my initial costing for a wild rice and marinated mushroom salad was over £40 – the aghast faces of my fellow buffeteers said it all. Several recipe adaptations, budget iterations and ingredient reductions later, it triumphantly limped over the £10 mark. And although it took a few slightly painful and initially disheartening meetings to reach agreement and forge ahead with plans, gradually things started to gel!

Our master planner Lara put together the mother of all time plans, colour-coded no less (mise en place, eat your heart out). Our costing queen Pauline had us totted up to the last penny. Our decoration diva Becky even foraged and washed leaves for the autumnal theme. And our one and only man, Phil, well and truly perfected his pear and gingerbread puds after making at least a dozen different batches, discovering that there are many ways to slice a pear in the process.

Thursday was our B-day, so we had two days of buffets to sample before producing our own. Both teams set the bar very high with delicious Moroccan and Middle-Eastern spreads that we found hard to fault, especially knowing how much effort they would have put into them, let alone emotional investment. Slightly daunted but quietly confident that we too could pull it off, we assembled in the kitchen, awaiting the 9.30 start after which we could brandish knives and fire up ovens... and we're off!

Nervousness rapidly gave way to enjoyment as we got into the swing of things. We had focus, we had purpose, and we had a deadline – our timekeeper Lara never let us forget that.

On one side of me, blossoming pastry pros Sophie and Francesca turned out enviable pucks, in front of me Becky was producing prolific peaks from 18 egg whites, while across the kitchen Marianne podded at least 1000 broad beans (swearing never to do it again) and Pauline primed the salmon. 

I briefly prided myself on having four pots on the go at once; two sweating leeks and two cooking different types of rice. We had a few crisis moments (best left vague for the record) and will be eternally grateful for the cleaning angels from the other half of the class who stepped in to help just when we thought we would never make serving time. But that did not detract from the joy of seeing our buffet table made flesh – replete and more beautiful than we had imagined – let alone the pleasure of serving people our food. No matter what the comments, we felt ecstatic. 

However, Leiths never lets you rest on your laurels. The soap suds had barely been wiped off the last plate when we learned that we would be put into new teams of four, cooking a buffet for 50, in the first week of next term. 'Come Buffet With Me: Episode 2'… coming soon!

By Keri Fuller

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