It’s a rookie mistake, and one I instantly regret.
As I join my friends at the dining table at Burns Club Canberra’s Star Buffet, my plate replete with Chinese roasted pork and barbecue duck, noodles, honey chicken and a couple of pieces of Chinese sausage, it becomes immediately clear that I’ve peaked too soon.
Other members of our group of 10 are tucking into delicate morsels of smoked salmon, fresh prawns, petite salads and freshly made sushi. My plate stands out like a side of bacon at a vegan breakfast.
But that’s the problem with an all-you-can-eat affair, particularly one as big as the Star Buffet in the Burns Club, one of Canberra’s oldest businesses. You either need to be in the know about what dishes can be found where so you can properly plan your attack or, if you’re a newbie, take the time to carry out a full recce before you so much as point at a piece of protein.
This is my first visit to the club and I’ve fallen at the first hurdle.
Had I taken a quick stroll around the food stations before jumping into the queue for the Chinese barbecued meats, I would have clocked the small sushi train and the seafood and salad bar, which would have been much more natural entry points for this evening’s meal.
I’d also have had the foresight to leave sufficient space for something from the dessert station (featuring steaming hot chocolate pudding, apple crumble and miniature Portuguese tarts alongside a chocolate fountain with marshmallows, in addition to cold sweets including panna cotta, cakes and jellies in an adjacent display case).
Had I been prepared, I could even have themed my meal. I could have focussed on carvery selections such as roast beef or ribs and spuds, pumpkin and greens; maybe an Indian meal (the butter chicken, steamed fish and naan bread did look great); or a Japanese affair (a few pieces of tuna sashimi, prawn and salmon nigiri sushi perhaps, followed by Takoyaki octopus balls and noodles). Or I might have opted for a pizza night, given the club’s onsite pizza oven.
From a culinary perspective, there’s something to keep everyone happy here, which is exactly how Canberra Burns Club president Athol Chalmers likes it. Since introducing the buffet five years ago in a bid to save the business, the club hasn’t looked back.
Athol directly credits the buffet’s inclusive, affordable offer for people of all ages and backgrounds with an increase in club membership from 5,000 to nearly 35,000 in just two years.
A highly infectious virus like COVID-19 could have spelled disaster for the buffet model, but a strategic pivot at the right time has enabled the club to ride the storm.
The Burns Club remained shut due to COVID-19 restrictions from 23 March to 1 June, but opted to reopen, initially without poker machines, immediately afterwards so “members would be able to come back and mix and see each other again as the club offers an important social outlet for them”, says Athol.
Instead of diners helping themselves from a bain-marie and serving platters, the Star Buffet now has waitstaff at each station to serve customers, and items such as the freshly cooked prawns, mussels, individual salads, cakes and other desserts are packaged in containers to meet health and safety requirements.
Star Buffet manager Florencio (Flo) Vong said the new model was quite a change for the in-house team, but staff and customers have embraced it.
“A lot of our customers tell us they like the interaction, to be able to talk to the staff about the food,” Flo says. “Others tell us they really like coming because of our COVID-safe practices.”
Flo says there is no change to the ‘all-you-can-eat’ nature of the buffet despite the new service model.
“People don’t need to feel ashamed if they want to eat a little more – they just need to ask the server. That’s why they come to an all-you-can-eat buffet – to eat all they want!” he says.
As for the most popular choices among the 80 or so dishes served at every lunch and dinner sitting, Flo cites the Chinese offerings (fried rice and garlic prawns, Mongolian beef, honey chicken), followed by roasts from the carvery, and desserts.
“Everyone wants a slice of pavlova, that’s for sure,” he says.
Due to the fast turnover, dishes are on display for no more than 15 to 30 minutes, meaning absolute freshness at all times, Flo says. As for waste, the club uses high-tech ORCA food waste technology to convert every bit of plant waste to water.
While you won’t find haute-cuisine here (that’s not the nature of buffet-style dining), the Burns Club Star Buffet formula is a winner. Pre-COVID, the club was serving 6,000 buffet meals a week.
Regulars pop by two or three times a week, workgroups and friends enjoy casual, fun nights out without having to stress about finding a venue with food to suit everyone, and even tour buses drop off guests during their sightseeing activities, says Athol.
For families, it’s an easy and enjoyable option for a night out together. Flo tells me about the father and daughter who have come for a buffet dinner every Friday night without fail for four years.
I make a note to introduce myself to this committed pair next time I’m in. They, surely, would have Burns Club Buffet Etiquette down to a fine art.
The Canberra Burns Club Star Buffet at 28 Kett Street, Kambah, is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.