As a starving teenager, buffets were my ultimate culinary extravagance. They had everything. Prawns? Of course. Butter chicken? Sure. Self-serve soft-serve? Absolutely. But it was the ’90s, man. Things were different. I was young, dumb and full of metabolism. Oh man, I miss that metabolism.

As I grew older, sadly, so did buffets. One by one, Sizzlers closed down across the country. The $4.95 All-You-Can-Eat Pizza Hut lunch just disappeared. And worst of all, Smorgy’s made the heartbreaking announcement that its beloved fibreglass volcano would cease to erupt and remain dormant forever.

These days, the equivalent is the degustation – a succession of anywhere between six and sometimes 20 small dishes of complementary tastes and flavours, designed and curated by a head chef. But of course, these fancy tasting menus are significantly pricier than the humble buffet AND they’re not even all-you-can-eat.

Excuse me? More money for less food? Pass me my Twitter, this is an utter outrage.

But imagine if there was a way of getting a world-class degustation for the price of a local buffet?

That’d be great, right? Are you imagining it? Well stop! Because I’ve already found a way. Call it a workaround. Call it a food hack. Call it the greatest dining discovery of the modern era. Call it … The Buffetstation.

You’ll need:
1 x booking for two at your favourite buffet
1 x “Shannon Bennett”

My favourite buffet has always been The Conservatory – a long-standing part of the famed jewel in Melbourne’s crown, Crown. Which, I guess technically makes it the jewel inside the jewel in Melbourne’s crown. Is that even a thing?

Siri, remind me to Google, “Babushka Jewels”.

My “Shannon Bennett” of choice is Shannon Bennett – owner and executive chef at THE ABSOLUTE BEST restaurant in Melbourne, Vue de Monde.

What to do:
1. Invite Shannon Bennett to join you for an innocent buffet lunch.
2. Upon arrival, challenge Shannon to create an eight-course degustation, using ONLY the existing food and ingredients available to him at the buffet.
3. Patiently wait for him to accept the challenge.
4. After a few minutes, gently remind him that this is the entire basis of an article you are writing and if he declines it will be horribly embarrassing for you.
5. Once he happily agrees to participate, sit back, relax and enjoy a world-class degustation tasting menu for a fraction of the regular degusting price.

Shannon clearly knows what’s at stake here. This is history in the making after all. He paces around the bain-marie jotting down ideas that will soon become part of the next phase in buffet evolution.

Pacific oyster with seaweed and mirin

Pacific oyster with seaweed and mirin

Here we go. Dish one. A single pacific oyster topped with that green Japanese seaweed stuff and perfectly balanced out with a mirin sauce.

Shannon points out that we could actually live on oysters. JUST oysters. They contain enough nutrients for a good, balanced diet. That makes them one of the few foods that could responsibly be labeled, “all-you-can-eat”.

Prawn, salami and prawn cracker

and

Mussel, papadum, mango and pickled chili

Prawn, salami and prawn cracker, plated alongside mussel, papadum, mango and pickled chili

Okay. Sound the alarm. Shannon just asked one of the chefs to peel the prawns for him. Is he cheating? No. Relax. And turn that alarm off; it’s a figure of speech. According to the rules I’m making up as I go along, Shannon is technically allowed to do whatever a regular paying customer could legitimately do at a buffet. It’s legal.

But really, if you were Shannon Bennett, would you peel your own prawns? I don’t think so. If you were Shannon Bennett, you’d just stay at home cooking for yourself all day long while tweeting, “Guess what dickheads? I’m Shannon f#%king Bennett!”

N.B. If you actually ARE Shannon f#%king Bennett, thanks again for helping with this. It was great. The article is going pretty well, too – I made sure I really pumped up Vue de Monde at the start. So … you’re welcome.

N.B.B. If you’re a different Shannon Bennett, just ignore this. But feel free to do the tweeting thing. It’ll still be factually correct, if not slightly misleading.

Chicken, sweet corn and squid soup

Chicken, sweet corn and squid soup

I can’t believe this. Shannon f#%king Bennett is creating an entire meal just for me. Maybe this is the best it’ll ever get. Look at me, just chin-wagging with Shan-Shan (I absolutely didn’t call him “Shan-Shan” to his face), talking about food and reminiscing about buffets. He even told me the magic recipe for Sizzler’s Cheesy Bread…

Uh oh. Hold up.

Sound the alarm. Yes, the actual alarm. This is not a drill or a figure of speech. With five courses still remaining, we’ve been told that the buffet will close in 20 minutes. Shannon immediately requests radicchio lettuce cups from the kitchen. Then he gets some roast beef from the carvery to dice, and some green beans and sweet potato that he personally forages from the salad bar himself. He adds a few dressings and sauces and all of a sudden we have delicious san choy bau. clapping emoji

San choy bau, roast beef and sweet potato

San choy bau, roast beef and sweet potato

The heat is really on, now. It’s like I’m on an episode of Masterchef! I mean, it’s like Shannon’s on an episode of Masterchef and I’m just watching. Which, when I think about it, isn’t particularly unusual.

Assiette of Bain-marie

Assiette of Bain-marie

Next course. Black-bean pork, peas and a curry sauce are paired with what Shannon affectionately calls, “Two-hour-dried Bain-marie Noodles”. He enlists my help to gather the pork and break it into exactly five pieces on the plate. Why? Because he only ever dishes up food in odd numbers. NEVER even. “It just looks better,” he says.

With time ticking down, we move on quickly to dessert. And it’s all hands on deck. Shannon asks the waiter for a bigger glass bowl of some sort. What comes out (of the box) is what can only be described as a vase. It will house Shannon’s final creation … Conservatory Mess.

Conservatory Mess inspired by the original Eton Mess

Conservatory Mess

With so many pre-made desserts and so much ice cream on offer, this mess is a revelation. I’ve sous-cheffed my way into helping Shannon dump orange cake, raspberry sorbet, chocolate cake, cream, and raspberry sorbet into the out-of-the-box vase.

And it is a glorious way to finish. Maybe even a work of art. Pollock art.

And that is that. Now, for those of you keeping count, you might’ve noticed there were only seven courses. Not the requested eight. Uh oh. Twist? When I realised this later, my jaw dropped in shock at the possibility that Shannon Bennett might have made an unforgivable mistake. But then I remembered what he said earlier, “Only dish up food in odd numbers. It just looks better”. Touché, Shan-Shan. Tou-f#%king-ché.

N.B.B.B. Nearly forgot Shannon’s recipe for Sizzler’s Cheesy Bread (it’s joyously easy):
1. Butter a thick slice of cheap, sweet bread (butter, NOT margarine)
2. Take 3–4 tablespoons of microplane-grated Parmesan cheese
3. Coat the bread generously in the grated cheese over a medium heat in a non-stick fry pan or flat-grill barbecue
4. Add some oil and a pinch of good salt to the cooking surface
5. Fry the bread until golden then serve

Siri, remind me to end with a link to vuedemonde.com.au so readers can buy Shannon’s books and eat at his restaurants.