Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it: Fine Cafeteria Dining. Most of us, at least, associate the word Cafeteria, like Buffet, with awful school-served food and cheap dives that serve a facsimile of prison or, only marginally better, high school or farm animal, slop, perhaps with just a dollop more of stale grease and a whole mess o’ chaos added. Of course, we’ve all seen (I hope) exemplars that defy such mean images; my favorite in recent times was the cafeteria or buffet at the fabulous indoor/outdoor art museum Artipelag just outside Stockholm. If you can get there, go.
Even if you think you hate art and are bored by it, go. If you have any affinity with nature, the grounds are spectacular and wind with marvelous boardwalks and trails, and the main building is topped by a superb roof garden where much of the produce used ‘downstairs’ is grown. If you enjoy clever and serene modern architecture, the building that houses the cafeteria, a slightly more upscale cafe, and the art galleries is a delight, bathed in natural light, full of large glass walls that frame views as magnificent as any artwork, and clean-lined yet full of attention to detail, to the degree that the public restrooms are worth a visit on their own merit, feeling like magical caves and so peaceful you’ll want to install a bunk and just stay there. If you are attracted to art and design and craft, you’ll find both objects in the permanent collection and the changing exhibitions rich and highly characteristic of the wealth of brilliant visual influences Sweden, Scandinavia, and other centers of great art and design and craft (whose treasures are highlighted here) have had on world culture.
If you think you dislike all of that but are hungry, go anyhow. The cafeteria is stellar. Every dish, condiment, and drink is—unlike typical cafeteria or buffet food, beautifully made and dazzlingly fresh. It’s not fussy, but it’s full of the best sorts of traditional and contemporary flavors and textures and ingredients that rightly make Sweden and its chefs such stars of this era’s culinary scene. I hardly dared to look up Artipelag to put the link above for you, for fear of how homesick it makes me for Stockholm and how fearsomely hungry I get!
And it’s a reminder, in a more cheering sense, that I neither have to labor terribly hard nor be massively more skillful and clever in the kitchen than I am (not that either would be a bad thing) to produce something that can please hungry people, and each in his or her preferred way. All I have to do, really, is adopt and adapt the best parts of cafeteria food. I’ve talked about this before, but having more time and inclination to cook and prep meals at home in the last couple of weeks has brought this to the fore yet again. My simple cues: choose or make many small and simple things that go together reasonably well, and let the diners choose what parts they prefer and how they like to combine them or separate them. Cafeterias, for all of their myriad sins, may have gotten one thing more right than many high-end chefs and restaurants often do, in recognizing that divided food dishes can help lead to better portion control but, by coincidence, they also give succor to the huge number of people who like to keep the parts of their meals separate. I know it sounds a little infantile to people who enjoy the intermingling of foods with affinities or who think only kids have this preference, but I’d bet you a large chunk of change that there are far more “grownups” who like food better this way, too, than will necessarily admit to it in public.
Using a divided plate or a series of small dishes can serve several purposes beyond this purist drive, anyhow. If you want to be able to experience each item or preparation alone, to savor its unique merits, how better than to keep it isolated from wandering sauces or bits of other foods? If you like to mix things together to your own proportional likes, why not? If you like to keep crispy food crispy and let the slurpy food melt away, nothing makes it easier than physical separation.
There are reasons we find tasting menus, tapas dinners, hors-d’oeuvres parties, and yes, even buffets appealing when they’re well done. The joy of discovering each small taste individually before deciding whether to let them join company anywhere besides in our innards is a privilege that is worth cultivating often. It lets everyone in the room play chef a bit. And it pretty much guarantees that no one will leave hungry. And isn’t that the point?