It’s a simple fact that every work-related retreat, conference, symposium, or summit starts at least an hour before anyone really wants it to. (Note: I am strongly in favor of calling anything a “summit” because it just feels more important, like you’re all vital components in negotiating a multilateral arms treaty even though the agenda just calls for “Review Quarterly Sales Figures.”) You’re tired and maybe jetlagged, your suit is rumpled, the symposium staff spelled your name wrong on your nametag, and the air conditioning in the Hilton Garden Inn whined all night and transformed your room into a polar icebox and why does the hotel even have that on in March anyway. For so many reasons, you absolutely, positively do not want to be there. And yet there it is, printed in bold font at the top of the ominously long agenda you received last week: Registration begins at 8 AM. Breakfast will be served. And boy, will it ever. The ubiquitous pre-conference breakfast couldn’t be more generic or predictable, but also, it’s easy, it’s included in your registration fee, and breakfast is the most important meal of the day (OR IS IT?), so you might as well make the most of it. Here’s how.
First, take stock. Is there an omelette bar? If so, turn around. You’re still at the hotel, you’re going to be late, registration will close, and you’ll have to make up your attendance at a later date and do this all again.
Eggs. I’m sad to say, but you really shouldn’t go here. And I’m sad precisely because I love eggs. Eggs are simple, tasty, and versatile, as long as you’ve successfully maintained the social disconnect between what you’re eating and chicken fetuses. But the problem is that the breakfast buffet prioritizes foods that can be provided in bulk; quantity over quality is the name of the game. The only way to produce eggs in bulk is scrambled, and while properly scrambled, just-a-little-bit runny eggs are delicious, conference eggs (for the masses) have a rubberized hardness that uncomfortably recalls the texture of Silly Putty. The color, too, is almost always an unnatural, uniform yellow, like the egg preparers that be think they’ll lull you into a sense of satisfaction if the hue of your food subtly reminds you of a worn tennis ball. Conference eggs only come out of the serving dish in serving spoon-sized chunks that represent at least three more eggs than you would eat in any normal situation. Cut off a bite-sized piece is like slicing through an old, waterlogged sponge. Leave the eggs to the omelette bar at the hotel at which you totally would have eaten if only you had known better.
Bacon. Happily, while eggs are a no-go, heaping plates of conference bacon get a firm green light. While I am fully on to the bacon industrial complex (wake up you SHEEPLE), bacon in this setting can be the exception. Bacon is so easy to make that it’s going to taste exactly the same whether you make three or three hundred strips at a time, so it’s a pretty safe bet. Speaking of which, bacon is obviously terrible for you, which is why most civilized restaurants generally limit the portion size to two or three slices. The do-it-yourself nature of the breakfast buffet, however, allows you the chance to indulge your most gluttonous, slovenly fantasies. You think nothing of putting a little pile of bacon on your plate like it was mashed potatoes or something. I worked with an older gentleman once who would saunter into meetings a few minutes late, amble over to the buffet, and fill a travel cup of bacon, and then go sit down like he was eating chips or nuts or trail mix. He would occasionally do this at meeting at which he had no business attending. The allure of office buffet bacon is strong, and he, not unlike a bloodhound, rose to the occasion every time.
The fruit bowl. Numerous esteemed publications have attempted to rank fruit, and I am not here to disparage their terrible and inaccurate rankings that somehow do not list Fuji apples first. Instead, I’m talking about the collective, chopped-up fruit that is served in a large bowl, and this is usually a very safe bet despite the dismaying overrepresentation of cantaloupe and honeydew. Fruit bowls are invariably composed entirely of these two sad ingredients once everyone has had the chance to take the good stuff, and after the first 20 minutes or so it’s just people sadly rifling through the orange and green morass, searching in vain for a stray strawberry. Plus, fruit is bright and colorful and good for you, and according to nutritional science it almost certainly negates all the ill effects of the pile of bacon you’re about to eat.
Bagels. Sneaky-best part of the entire breakfast, because bagels afford your the opportunity to exercise some choice and creativity in the sea of Joseph A. Bank suits that surrounds you. You can have it your way! Generic though most buffets may be, somehow conference organizers everywhere have decided that individually operable toasters should be standard at bagel stations. You can scoop out the bagel, Manhattan-style, for a delicious, lower-carb breakfast (note: if you do this you are a certified idiot, THERE IS ALREADY A HOLE IN THE MIDDLE). And look at all those toppings! Cream cheese is the perennial favorite, but if you ask the servers nicely they probably have some peanut butter and honey that you can melt together in gooey goodness. Bonus points if there are bananas near the fruit bowl that you can slice up and put on top. The bottom line is that if you get there early enough to score an everything bagel, which are objectively the best of the bagels, there’s pretty much no way you can lose at the buffet after that.
Pastries. Here’s where the quantity over quality principle rears its ugly head. Real pastries, of course, are light, delicate, crispy, and delicious. The pastries at the summit (see?!), however, were almost certainly picked up at Costco earlier this week, and since the food budget is a little tight they opted for the day-old, half-off lot, and the last four days have not been kind to that cheese danish. No good comes of this. Steer clear.
Coffee. Oh boy. I am a coffee snob who grinds his own beans, both because I love coffee and also because being a coffee snob is actually a two-week component of a mandatory law school class in which you’re also trained to pretend to prefer your whiskey neat, use phrases like “circle back” with a straight face, and select tasteful color combinations for your boat’s topsails. And since coffee at these events is generally not great, and since a critical component of being a coffee snob is loudly commiserating with anyone who will listen and anyone who will not about how the coffee is only slightly different than caffeinated raw sewage, this could get ugly quickly. But if we’re being honest, the coffee is probably not that bad. There are always plenty of choices when it comes to milk, cream, and sweetener that are more than sufficient to mask the taste of burnt coffee beans. It’s definitely better than the plastic-wrapped pod that your Hilton Garden Inn room offered to you. And most importantly, you’re about to kick off the day by sitting through a two-hour session named something like “Coalition Building.” You’re going to need this.
Related, the absolute worst of all breakfast-related emotions is, without question, going down the line of thermoses, your terror slowly mounting as each one proves empty, until finally at the very last one, a strong, confident, and powerful stream of coffee fills your mug to the brim ever so satisfyingly, and relief courses through your veins until, DAMMIT, it was too good to be true: decaf. If this happens to you, leave and go find your nearest Starbucks. It is much better to pay four dollars for coffee with the necessary stimulants than to fall asleep while you’re supposed to be engrossed in leveraging cross-departmental synergies to access untapped markets, or something.
Juice. Is it the watery kind that comes in lukewarm plastic bottle? If so, NOPE, and I’m really sorry that his had to happen to you. Otherwise, go for it in the following order: orange, grapefruit, and apple. Lots of these buffets inexplicable also offer cranberry cocktail, which I think is weird because it always feels like it’s left over from another event at which it was accompanied by vodka. Note that if you actually brought vodka, you are a pessimist and a degenerate but if at any point they organize us into smaller groups of an icebreaker problem-solving exercise can I please have some, OK.
Cereal. The powers that be at international cereal conglomerates have apparently decided that the only cereals available in individual serving bowls should be raisin bran, Corn Flakes and Fruit Loops. They think that conferences cater exclusively to extremely boring people or eight-year-olds. Adding milk to cereal gets dicey in the buffet setting, especially when it comes out of a giant, soda machine-like dispenser that seems not quite removed enough from the industrial-sized steel containers at the dairy farms from which that milk came. And even if you manage that, eating the cereal out of its single-serving bowl is a little demeaning and makes you feel like you’re making Sad Alone Breakfast at a CVS after spending the night at the Greyhound station. Cereal is great in general, but the buffet setting just renders it impractical. Skip this and wait until you can cover half a box of Golden Grahams with 2% milk poured from a jug in the privacy and comfort of your own home.
Miscellaneous dairy: cottage cheese. As someone who ate cottage cheese every morning for eight misguided years, I can unequivocally confirm that cottage cheese is the worst. I have no idea why it’s so often served at buffets, as most attendees ignore it completely, and the few who would eat it are obviously too ashamed to be seen partaking in public. One day I was shopping for groceries and Trader Joe’s was out of cottage cheese (it remains an eternal mystery who decided to buy them out and why, but I digress) so I tried Greek yogurt on a whim, and holy crap I will never go back. This entire episode has caused me to think of those years as wasted time for a reason other than “Time I spent without the ‘Cruise’ remix playing any role in my life.” Cottage cheese is your conference’s way of telling you that it hates you and that the afternoon’s breakout session will run 20 minutes over its scheduled time.
Miscellaneous dairy: yogurt. Whatever. This is so inoffensive, so innocuous, and so vanilla (bonus points because, it’s often actually vanilla). Especially if the buffet is dominated by pastries, as is often the case, this may be the best way to go.
Miscellaneous dairy: hard-boiled eggs. As noted above, I love eggs, which is why hard-boiled eggs infuriate me, because they were clearly invented by people who hate eggs as planted evidence that eggs are bad. Only eat hard-boiled eggs if you want your breakfast to be the consistency and temperature of day-old Jell-O and the flavor of…well, eggs. Also, peeling hard-boiled eggs is impossible and you will always miss one tiny shell shard that will poke your esophagus all the way down and make you wince intermittently for the rest of the day. Horrifyingly, sometimes you’ve put all the work of actually peeling the egg and eating the white only to find that the hardened yolk (this time the consistency of freeze-dried ice cream) is green or black, and then you feel not only poisoned but also betrayed by your breakfast food of choice. Again, steer clear.
conference summit is an exercise in professional self-loathing, and try as you might, you know exactly what’s going to happen and there is never anything you can do to change it. You’re going to dutifully wear a nametag, shake a lot of hands, make interminable small talk about the weather, fall asleep in the Q&A session, spill a little bit of coffee on your good tie, promise to follow up with people you will likely never see again, and sit in the airport at Chili’s Too for four hours because your plane is delayed coming through Chicago-Midway (your flight is always delayed because of Chicago-Midway). So at least get started on a high note and make sure you do breakfast right. And…consider bringing vodka, just in case.