The holiday season is one of the busiest times of year for chef Simone Ferrara of Hotel Viking in Newport, Rhode Island. The hotel has two restaurants, One Bellevue and Top of Newport Bar and Kitchen, which both do special holiday menus. Ferrara is the chef de cuisine and estimates that he and his team will serve 400 covers between both restaurants and the to-go orders that they offer for guests who want to enjoy their meals at home. This year, the team has decided to serve a holiday buffet, holiday prix fixe, to-go orders, and in-room dining. It’s a big undertaking — but chef Ferrara is happy to do it. “We’re very proud to serve people who want to spend their holidays with us and all of our staff,” he says.
For many restaurants, the holiday buffet poses a lot of specific challenges. What dishes should be included? How can you be sure that your kitchen is ready and equipped to handle refreshing dishes? What do you do with leftover product? Chef Ferrara talked to us about how he plans holiday menus and the advice he has for other chefs on how to avoid the pitfalls of planning and executing a holiday buffet.
Cost is key.
To start, chefs need to think about when planning a buffet is cost, Ferrara says. “The first thing we did was we costed all of the menu items for our buffet and prix-fixe,” he says. That allowed him to understand which dishes on the buffet spread are the most expensive and what items are the least expensive. Then he could lay them out in a way that made sense for his bottom line. For example, sea salt-crusted prime rib is served on an action station because it’s easier to control the cost of it if staff is designating the portions instead of guests serving themselves. Sides, like mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables, have a lower food cost so guests can help themselves.
Balance classic holiday items with signature dishes.
Creating a menu that blends the classic dishes that guests expect while still incorporating some unique touches was a bit of a challenge. “The way that we do that is we narrow down the classics and add a twist,” he says. “Like our sweet potatoes that get torched on top to add a bit of crunch.” The menu also differentiates itself from other holiday offerings by including dishes that speak to the restaurant’s New England locale. “We offer our lobster ravioli and other seafood items because we have great local seafood,” Ferrara says. He also thinks about his buffet spread and if it can be enjoyed by all kinds of guests. “I think about dietary restrictions a lot when planning,” he says. “Are there vegan and gluten-free items that guests can enjoy?” Making sure that these options are available means that there’s everyone has a good experience.
Being organized through menu planning, ordering, prepping, and executing is vital, Ferrara adds. He prints out prep sheets for each day of service so that he and his team can stay on top of it for the buffet. Printing them also gives him a list to cross-check at the end of shift to make sure that everything is on point. Running a service that will do 400 covers requires him to keep track of a lot of different orders and prep lists. “It’s all about organization,” he says. “Make sure your teams reacts well and knows what they’re expected to do.”
Create estimates for how much product you’ll need and have a plan for the leftovers.
In order to have an accurate reservation count, the team takes holiday reservations up until three days prior, Ferrara says. That way he knows exactly how much of everything needs to be ordered and prepped. Once he has that number, he can begin prepping the buffet for the right amount of people. And what about leftover food at the end of the night? Ferrara allows line cooks, as well as servers in the front of house, take home what they want. “We have twenty-five people in the back of the house working the holiday shift, so we want to do something special for them.” The team also sits down before the shift for a Thanksgiving lunch pre-meal. “We know people would rather be at home with their families on holidays so this is another way to show how much we appreciate them.”
And, as always, it’s important to keep your team in great spirits, especially on holidays, Ferrara says. He encourages his front-of-the-house team to let the back of the house know when someone says they’ve enjoyed their meal. “You have to keep the morale high and make sure that they know they’re making people happy in the dining room.”