The hotel buffet breakfast challenge

Image of Susie Boyt

The Madrid Ritz has the best carpets in the hotel world. They bloom with garlands of red and pink roses, somehow suggesting both Christmas and Old Hollywood at every turn. They even lend that inescapably depressing thing, the hotel corridor, a feeling of spree and carnival, inviting cartwheels, love scenes, blazing rows, dance routines, marriage proposals. This rosy vision extends in all sorts of different ways, permeating the behaviour of the hotel staff from the feet up. For example, they actually like children there. One of mine was using the revolving doors as a carousel.

“Sorry,” I whispered anxiously to the stately doorman.

“Sorry? Sorry? Sorry nothing Lady! Nothing sorry!” He was outraged at the very suggestion that I might have even considered apologising. “When I was a boy, my mother, oh my God! This. This? This is absolute nothing.” It was very high-class.

In the lounge a beautiful harpist was playing Cole Porter’s “Who Knows Where or When”, and they were serving churros and champagne. Sometimes glamour is medicinal. It peps and lifts. It makes up for everything that has ever gone wrong in your life. It’s practically vitamins.

But in the morning the hotel buffet breakfast was fraught, as all hotel buffet breakfast scenarios are. Wants, needs and desires are hard enough to separate at the best of times. It is impossible not to approach the HBB as a metaphor, for surely the way we eat is the way we live.

That is the kind of thinking that must be ditched straight away, for that way paralysis lies.

Yet consider the HBB as a straightforward moral challenge, and you’re in instant hot water too. For what will guide and steer your ethics? It’s all very delicate. If you have any thoughts about the whole set-up as a multiple choice test for your personality, you will be sunk before you’ve so much as munched a crumb. You’ll find yourself wishing you were contemplating one of those still lifes in the Prado with a few dewy grapes, a crust of bread, a lemon and a dead bird on a string.

Let me tell you a story. Once I was in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, for the annual Judy Garland Festival. The modest and cheery hotel where I was staying hosted what was termed “an all you can eat early-bird waffle buffet”.

At this gay occasion I was with friends and a friend’s newly affianced nephew. The boy was serious and deeply religious, the son of missionaries. His girlfriend was of similar stock. Though their wedding was imminent, the couple, both 18, had not yet kissed but had on a few select occasions held hands.

Next to us was a series of waffle irons and a chef who wasn’t afraid to use them. Mountains and leaning towers of waffles sprung up beside us. These two young pale and slender people had been brought up to be frugal. They had also been raised to despise any sort of waste and to do as they were bade. What was to be done? They ate and ate and ate, perhaps 14 waffles each, obediently ladling on all the toppings we were given, and then they were both quite sick.

Oh, to be set in front of a hotel buffet breakfast knowing one is spending the next week fleeing baddies over mountaintops on no rations! This is only very, very, occasionally the case. In the absence of Rodgers and Hammerstein moments, there are generally six kinds of approach:

1. The smash-and-grab: pile high doughnuts, smoked salmon, cured meats – it’s all good.

2. Horses for courses: take a small plate of fruit, return for a little egg, bacon, and mushroom, finish with a baby croissant.

3. Spa deluxe: gorge on one and a half kilos of mixed berries for maximum value and antioxidants.

4. Steely abstinence: a single espresso and half a grapefruit because we are not a child in a sweetshop.

5. Home from home: have exactly what you would have at home on an ordinary Tuesday because you know yourself so well.

6. The magic three: take an inventory of all that is present and choose the three that most appeal. This is akin to visiting the Prado, pre-choosing five paintings to study, then seeking them out and looking at nothing else. It is total focus plus control.

There is a zany rare seventh buffet style – colour-coded food-plates, all pink one day, all yellow the next, perhaps linked to what you’re wearing – but this approach is only practised by high-end interior designers.

The knack, I think, is to rotate all seven strategies, one for every day of the week, keeping everybody, especially yourself, guessing. We must all resist definition, especially first thing in the morning.

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