Me and the buffet

June 22, 2011 · 22 comments

While I love to use my tendency toward compulsion as a self-deprecating attempt to make light of situational anxieties that plague me in not-so-funny ways, I am not a germ-o-phobe. My compulsive traits do not involve excessive hand-washing, cans of Lysol stuffed into trendy hobo bags, or containers of hand sanitizer stashed in every drawer of my house. When it comes to exposure paranoia, I am much more likely to be afraid of chemical toxins than germs — for example, I love to swim but think chlorine is toxic. I therefore only swim laps once every two weeks (for the love of natural germ-killers, could someone in Indianapolis install a salt-water lap pool? Trust me, they are all the rage, so very Portland).

Some of my idiosyncrasies have developed in the past decade — it’s like I grew up, had kids, and realized that a behavior I once complied with naively was finally seen as the death trap it always was. Rides at the State Fair, for instance. I might let my kids ride the carousel, but you will not see me willingly climb aboard a car that is merely a shoddily temporarily-bolted experiment in airborne centrifugal force. As thrilling as that was in 1987.

One of my late-blooming fear-factors is the buffet. It’s not the fact that the food just sits out, exposed to every wandering hand or spray of untamed sneeze — though that’s undoubtedly part of it, from an ick standpoint — it’s more the quality of the food. I just can’t believe that food being sold out of a large bin, made in massive quantity and replaced as-needed, is of good quality. Add to this the fact that they are often priced per-pound, and it all adds up to one big exercise in controlled anxiety.

Call me a snob, an elitist, a paranoid freak. Make me a t-shirt, I’ll wear it.

Last weekend I was in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with three of my BFFs. One evening, freshly-pedicured (because that’s what you do at Girls’ Weekends, right?), we found ourselves hungry, driving in downtown Chattanooga during a rainstorm and River Fest, an outdoor festival that left hundreds of people wet and searching for cover. We had a 6-month old baby along for the trip, and none of us had raincoats or umbrellas. We needed to find an inexpensive place to eat that was easy to access. Cassia suggested a Mongolian grill — a place where you “get to pick a protein and vegetables and spices and they stir-fry everything for you.” It seemed inexpensive and quick, but a step up from fast food.

But then we walked in, and they handed me a stainless bowl, and guided me to a buffet. And in the buffet were giant vats of raw meat. Chicken, beef, just sitting their, in all of their bacteria-growing glory. And a few steps down, I was to pick out various chopped veggies and top it all of with a spoon of my spice blend of choice, then hand it to the guy with the giant grill and hope all that bacteria got cooked off and that I blindly seasoned it enough (but not too much!) to taste decent.

I stood and looked, and observed my friends, and hemmed and hawed, and found myself on the verge of minor hyperventilation. As much as I talked myself down from the ledge, I just couldn’t do it — couldn’t stick a serving spoon into the Bucket O’ Uncooked Poultry and start filling my bowl. I won’t say I’m proud of the fact, but in essence, continued hunger won out over vats of raw buffet meat. And the longer I stood, the more I wondered how this concept of restaurant ever made it past the VC stage. I envisioned the presentation payoff:

And so, the concept is that people who want to eat out really want to prepare their own meal. We know they really want to make all their own decisions, only not at their house, at a place they must get into their car and drive to. So we give them all the ingredients, and let them exercise their right of choice by choosing things to put into their bowl. And then — this is where the brilliance is blinding — we cook it for them, so they don’t have to put it in a pan in their own house. We cook it, while they sit at a formica table with a number on it. And then we deliver a bowl to them — tell them it’s what they came up with, and THEY WILL LOVE IT. Because they didn’t have to put it into their OWN pan.

And after that, I just obsessed over the state of America. While we sat at our table and watched the rest of the restaurant fill with people. People who wanted to put their own food into a bowl, but not cook it.

My three girlfriends love me, and graciously put up with my horror, albeit laughingly. And when their bowls came, I tasted them all — and truth be told, they weren’t bad. Maybe needed a touch more salt here or there (my fault entirely, as I was the one who seasoned the tofu bowl — but how was I to know, just dumping in spoonfuls of spice?), but edible. And no one died.

But they did choke a bit, when the “server” brought the bill. At this Mongolian grill, it costs about $13 to fill a small bowl with raw ingredients and let someone else cook it.

Only in America. Or, as they would have us believe, Mongolia.




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joanna June 22, 2011 at 9:49 am

You don’t have to go to Nashville for this restaurant concept, either! Indy has two locations of Mongolian BBQ- at 86th near the Fashion Mall, and on 146th in Westfield.

I’m not too grossed out by the buffet concept, I just think it’s overpriced.

katy June 22, 2011 at 9:53 am

Joanna, you are clearly a more stable person than I. I’m with you though — the price would totally get me, if the unfounded buffet anxiety didn’t.

Also, not surprising that Indy has two locations ; )

Erin in Indy June 22, 2011 at 10:15 am

I ate at one of those places once. I too, was completely at a loss for their purpose. And yes, mass quantities of raw meat on a buffet, especially if it is chicken and “krab”, well, that’s just gross (in my humble opinion). Plus, if I am gonna cook, I am gonna cook. If I am gonna eat dinner at a restaurant, I like to be waited on (and miss out on the preparation of all the raw ingredients.) Maybe I am just too high maintenance. 😉

katy June 22, 2011 at 10:04 pm

Oh, yes! There was “krab!”
I’m with you. The blind-seasoning thing was even more disconcerting than the raw meat. I just couldn’t bring myself to dump in the “one spoonful for beginners” that they recommended. I mean, what was IN that spice blend? How could you possibly know without tasting it?

Erin in Indy June 22, 2011 at 10:16 am

p.s. as for buffets in general: my husband has certain health issues, and get this, the one thing his doctors told him to stay away from–yep, buffets.

Beth Becker June 22, 2011 at 10:45 am

While I can force myself to ignore the *ick* factor, I am more bothered at spending the $ on a bowl of food that had such little thought put into. (At least I pretend there was thought put it to it when I order at a restaurant.) I want someone ELSE to put it all together and figure out the spices. I don’t want that kind of pressure. And then ask me to pay for it? At least if I’m at home, I can taste, adjust, repeat. If I have to do more than just choose from the menu, the joy of dining OUT is gone. Party pooper? That would be me.

katy June 22, 2011 at 10:06 pm

While I did take bites around the table, enough to warrant my buying a round of local cupcakes for dessert, I was very glad that I did not purchase a $13 bowl for myself. THAT would’ve warranted a sleepless night.

Jen June 22, 2011 at 9:57 pm

I’m cracking up down here in the 105 degree heat (totally irrelevant to why I’m cracking up, but I need to tell the outside world how hot florida is)! I completely agree with you about the buffet of raw meat…and the price…and then cooking it yourself basically. I’m at a loss for the point of calling it a restaurant! Furthermore, I’m also looking for a salt-water pool. Kills me to toss my kids into a toxic summer cool down…

katy June 22, 2011 at 10:08 pm

No, 105º is relevant, in some way. No one should be that hot, at the very least not a woman who is nursing her fourth child.

Ok, how can we get some sort of national awareness going about salt-water pools? We had one at the YMCA in Athens! Wee little Athens, Georgia, was so on top of this!

Amy June 23, 2011 at 10:51 am

Even Jackson, Mississippi is on top of this.

katy June 23, 2011 at 3:25 pm

really? where?

Amy June 23, 2011 at 4:24 pm

The indoor pools at the fitness centers seem to have all gone salt water — the one at the place I used to go, off of County Line, has one. Can’t speak for all the outdoor community pools, but I would imagine that a lot of them have. The couple of pool maintenance places in town advertise about their saltwater pool maintenance stuff all the time. Dad and Ann’s pool in Picayune is salt water.

I guess I never considered it that big a deal — I mean, if it’s common in Jackson, it probably must be passe everywhere else.

Michelle @Gotchababy June 23, 2011 at 8:38 am

I’ve never been a huge fan of any buffet – it’s far too much work if I really want to eat out.

As for this particular concept, it’s just weird. We’ve been once or twice (over the past 15yrs), it’s nothing I choose. Why not just present all flavor options on the menu and then custom order? I mean, raw food sits somewhere in any restaurant, I just don’t need to see it….

Alex June 23, 2011 at 8:51 am

Hilarious. You can always upgrade to all-you-can-eat for only $5 more! It’s been several years since I’ve been to one of these restaurants, but I do believe I ate 5 full bowls (that was pre-the whole vegetarian / make food in my own pan thing)…

SMITH BITES June 23, 2011 at 8:59 am

yep – been to Mongolian Grill in Indy . . . that was before i actually THOUGHT about all that meat exposed to the sneezing, hands and god-knows-what-else . . . ick, ick, ick . . . and don’t even get me started on the $13/bowl thingie . . . i could REALLY go off on a tangent . . .

Katie June 23, 2011 at 11:07 am

Love the pic Katy. It’s priceless. :)

katy June 23, 2011 at 3:26 pm

That’s my freak-out face.

designhermomma June 23, 2011 at 1:29 pm

I haven’t been since college, but I kinda liked those places. But you ruined it for me.

katy June 23, 2011 at 3:28 pm

I know, you really should just stop listening to what I say, with my tendency to do that (insert Diet Coke reference here). Something about misery loving company? Or maybe If Momma ain’t happy, no one’s happy?

Nancy June 23, 2011 at 2:03 pm

I’m not sure how you make it through a day. 😉 Only kidding. I have been to Mongolian Grill, but only for lunch time as it is half that $13 price for the same exact thing. And I can admit, the raw meat grosses me out some. But what I found incredible were these huge linebacker types coming in and ONLY getting the meat. They had so much meat balanced in their tiny bowl it was like an Olympic event! Our server told us some of the more impressive carnivores she had encountered. At the one here, you stand and watch them cook your food for you. So, at least you know it is yours. My whole issue with buffets began 4 years ago when we found out about Will’s food allergies. Every time he has eaten at BD’s, he complains that his mouth hurts. The doc said it’s likely cross-contamination. So now, they are kind of nightmares for me. Who knows which spoon has been in what bin. And as for cooking food yourself, the first time Nate and I ever went to a Melting Pot, it was in Nashville and kind of on a lark. We enjoyed it – especially the dessert. Nate said he would love to take his parents because he knew they would love it. He asked if we could take my parents, too. I laughed and said, “My dad won’t eat pasta at a restaurant because he can quote the price of a box of spaghetti and can’t see how they can charge $12 for it. And here… oh my goodness… he would say, ‘I’m paying $24 to cook my own food?!'” And he has a point. Nate said you are paying for the experience and I said my dad would rather experience it at home where my mom would fix it for him. :)

katy June 23, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Nancy, I am not sure how I make it through the day either ; )

And really, I’m proud of Nate. Isn’t he the one who wouldn’t let you spend more than $30 on a hotel in Chicago? And here he is, paying $24 to cook his own meal!

Mike July 3, 2011 at 5:17 pm

We went to the same place in Seattle and I must Amit I any back for seconds….wanted to get my $$ worth. Soy sauce made it go down ok. The one we visited was temporarily out of Caymus, Silver Oak, and Yquem unfortunately.

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