Food’s great isn’t it? With food we celebrate events, we welcome new life into the world, we bid farewell to the departed – we acknowledge our love for one another.
Food is an oil that lubricates the cogs of civil society, of family and of business. The latter is the reason why we head out once a year with the people who are part-friends, part-colleagues, part-enemies. The people we work with.
Martin Freeman once said something startling when talking about The Office: We spend more time with our work colleagues than we do with the people we love. Do the maths – he’s right. That is a quite extraordinary statistic about modern life; about the reality of the 9-5 slog.
Spend your entire professional life in the same job and you’ll spend more time with Brenda in Accounts or Dave in IT than with the man or woman you love, your parents or your children. What manner of insanity is this?
It’s the world in which we live. And so too is the Christmas office party. You may go karting; you may watch some stand-up comedy; you may do a secret Santa; you will wear a silly hat. Whatever you do you will almost certainly have some food. Where you consume this food will probably bear no relation to the place you normally eat food – your favourite sushi or tapas restaurant or gastro pub or curry house. In all likelihood it will be a compromise choice, somewhere everyone can agree on, even if no-one particularly favours it.
With all of this in mind we found ourselves heading to a place known as the Red Hot World Buffet at the edge of Liverpool One recently. Someone once ate burgers in curry sauce, said a colleague. We have also heard that it’s possible to have a pizza with a Chinese – and all for three pounds fifty, or something.
The reality, in the latter instance, is not quite true. The Christmas buffet is £17.99 a head, though during the remainder of the year it’s cheaper. At lunch it’s as cheap as eight quid a head. Whether you think that’s good value depends rather on whether you prioritise quantity over quality.
We haven’t booked, so we go early. There’s a queue. There’s a queue to get into an all-you-can-eat buffet. For the staff, on this Friday before Christmas, it must be like the lead-up to the D-Day landings.
We manage to get a table and we’re immediately disorientated by the place. It’s vast, it’s noisy and it’s confusing. But really it’s quite simple. You get a plate and you put on it whatever the hell you want. Pizza, tex-mex, curry, Chinese, European cuisine, sausages… Pick your ingredients and they’ll do you a stir-fry. Or a risotto. To order, which immediately makes it more impressive than about half of the restaurants in Liverpool.
There’s more. There are canapes that wouldn’t look out of place in an executive board-room. They taste pretty good too, and there’s none of your Iceland finger food here.
Whole king prawns, truffled parsnips and parmesan bruschetta, avocado & cranberry with glazed walnut & blue cheese, carrot & fennel carpaccio with orange emulsion. Can you imagine Kerry Katona advertising this stuff? There’s also a bruschetta of ‘delicious green’, which didn’t really take our fancy but, all scoffing aside, there’s a dizzying range of food and it sounds startlingly ambitious.
We settle for a few Chinese and Indian starters. There’s squid rings and breaded scallops and crab claws. The scallops in breadcrumbs are surprisingly good – even though every fibre of our being screams that scallops should be seared in butter and left to live or die by their flavour.
Similarly the crab claws are presented in the same pleasantly fried breadcrumbs – they’re tasty and delicate. Crab is a delicate and delicious meat and its place on this menu seems wrong for a number of reasons, but it can’t be faulted on taste. There’s a wok full of each dish and people are piling their plates full.
Different people on our table have gone for different things; the veggie in our group has plumped for a raw stir-fry and seems impressed by the range. Another has curry with chicken legs and sweet’n’sour. Another has a plate of shredded duck.
On a second visit we notice more and more. The Christmas menu has tiger prawns in mornay sauce, slow roasted pork with fennel seeds and turkey pie – we take a look at the latter, it looks like a ready meal. There’s maybe half a dozen curry dishes with all the relevant accompaniments; pasta, stroganoff, sunday roasts. It’s dizzying. There’s a vast salad bar.
And, when we thought it couldn’t get any more absurd there’s some decent sushi, being steadily rolled by a guy behind the counter where various chefs sweat and cook and cook and sweat. The only things not on offer are emetics.
The tyranny of choice. It’s genuinely hard to know what to eat next. Mussels in black bean sauce are fat, well cooked and flavoursome. The grilled fish is good. Curries and chinese main courses – chicken tikka masala and pork sweet’n’sour in this case – are not especially good, it’s the one point where it becomes clear that most ingredients have been chosen for their economy above all.
Three plates of grazing and we’re done. But now there are ready-made crepes and a bar of fresh fruit and a dozen bite-size desserts. Cheesecakes and brownies and various cakes. An ice-cream station serving ten different flavours, including something blue called bubble gum. Should you wish to you can sprinkle coco pops on them. The desserts are arranged as if they’re precious ornaments on a multi-layered shrine; their symmetry fearful.
Drinks are rather less elaborate, but there’s the usual Eastern lagers on offer. The service is attentive. The toilets present a tilted slab where men wash their hands, blowing off luxuriantly. In the faux marble of the basin a number of wires and tubes behind the wall are reflected; it’s the one visual clue to the blood and guts behind a place like Red Hot Buffet.
Downstairs, among the Christmas parties and the slop buckets full of discarded, untouched food is a calvacade of carnage. The mind boggles at how many creatures met their doom to fill the overfilled plates of the festive blowouts of the solicitors, the accountants, the shop workers and the teachers. Woks full of crab, mussels, scallops and prawns are refilled every few minutes; food that, only a few years ago, was out of reach of most wallets.
How this is sustainable from a financial point of view seems to defy mathematics; whether it is sustainable from a more fundamental point of view seems doubtful. What if everyone in the world ate like this? Would we fish the seas to fill the bottomless woks until the seas were empty – gnawing, puzzled, on a breaded crab claw?
The overall impression is an assault on the senses; noise and taste and colour and competing smells. But it’s more than that; trying to assimilate all of this data while attempting to rationalise the enormous gluttony and waste on view is numbing.
Yet there is demand for food like this and plenty of it, particularly at Christmas, when we tend to indulge ourselves more. We may normally never dream of visiting a restaurant that doesn’t just sanction, but virtually encourage, greed. And who are we to judge people who eat so much they’re vomiting in the restaurant’s cubicles at 6pm?
But anything goes at the Christmas do; a time when our friends and our colleagues converge in a confused recipe of booze, food and celebration; when the normal rules of engagement are suspended for a night.
The food at Red Hot Buffet is surprisingly good, far better than most all-you-an-eat buffets. The value is literally unbelievable. You could eat pounds of expensive seafood in here and no-one would bat an eyelid. As an offering, especially at this time of year, its attraction is understandable and irresistible.
And, yet, there’s a kind of collective insanity to it; it’s a twilight zone of food where people leave their senses at the door. Simply put, it’s impossible to eat at a place such as the Red Hot World Buffet and not understand that we’re fundamentally doomed as a species.
Red Hot Buffet