"So, do you want to go classy or dirty?" These were the words that started our buffet journey. (Actually, they were "We need a student related food story by Monday.") The assignment: create food porn from the endless troughs of buffets and make the cheap and plain into something fancy---high dining for the sub-$20 crowd.
You know the drill: hit a buffet, slop all kinds of random shit on a plate and repeat until waves of nausea and self-loathing become too much. Go home, take nap, wake up and question why you did that to self. But there is another way.
Slow down there, cowboy: First, there isn't a timer sitting at your table counting down to your ejection from the restaurant. Don't burn out your digestive system in the first 15 minutes with those five pounds of assorted meat you precariously balanced on your plate. Just chill. Enjoy the endless supply of non-alcoholic drinks, engage in some conversation with your buffet buddies (tip: Never go alone). Take the concept of slow food literally here.
Plan your attack: The next step to fancying up your experience is knowing what you have to work with. Take a wander around, look at your options for creating appetizers and mains, see what your garnish and sauce options are. Are there soups? Check out what little touches you can add to personalize it. Remember, there typically isn't a formal line system. Some people may adhere to that idea, but you are not one of them.
Depending on ambition, you have two options. You can dress your single plate while in line, starting with the base and building, going back and forth as needed, using utensils for on-the-fly arrangements. Alternately, you can double-stack several plates and assemble your masterpiece at the table. The latter option may require some soup bowls at the table, filled with sauces or garnishes for decorating. Some buffets may have a condiment station you will need to visit, but given your goal of maximum eating, this is probably a good thing---it can't hurt to burn off a few extra calories while at the buffet.
Creative juices must flow: You gotta exercise those mind grapes as well. Check out sites like fancyfastfood.com, foodporn.com or tastespotting.com for inspiration. Ooh and ah over their immaculate presentations and carry forth the notion that yes, you too can achieve as much.
Ignore the sections in the buffet---you are now thinking outside the sneeze guards. The salad section doesn't have to be solely for salads---incorporate! Bacon bits on roasted potatoes, parmesan sprinkled on the soup with some croutons. Fill that wonton with rice, top it with some chili sauce and a couple shrimp from a skewer. Spoon that gravy in little drips around the edges of the plate---accessorize, goddamnit! Splash some pepper around, crush up that pack of soup crackers into a powder, sprinkle that shit!
Stare down the patrons who are watching your display---they can't handle this level of customization, this food mashuppery. De-batter those onion rings and deep-fried mushrooms, layer them with your beef balanced on that dollop of mashed potatoes. The ice cream toppings can be used with every dessert. Criss-cross the butterscotch over the cheesecake you delicately placed in a light pool of strawberry sauce, crumble some diabetic cookies on there. Scrape the chocolate fudge out of one tray and give your melon arrangement the sugary boost it needs, crush the flake pastry over it, gussy it up.
The buffet world is yours now. Go forth and create. Never be satisfied with simplicity.