The enjoyment of food is as much visual as it is about taste and smell. Both Gayle and I care about how food is presented to us. Maybe it’s because of our artistic backgrounds. Before I became a chef I was an artist, specifically a painter, as was my mother. Gayle is a musician and comes from a family of musicians. Now, looking back after long careers, we can see that the connection between cooking and art is pretty direct.
Food presentation goes beyond the arrangement of finished ingredients on a plate. We decorate around food, making our tables beautiful, honoring community with flowers. It is also a reflection of the specific chef’s background, experience and the venue in which the chef practices. The chef in a cafeteria may sparingly dole out few sprigs of parsley, while a chef in a four-star restaurant is thinking about geometric plates, architecturally stacked ingredients and garnishes that emphasize dramatic and colorful presentations.
At the Beechwood Inn most of our recipes have a number of flavor components; layers of tastes that work nicely together. But our recipes also factor-in how foods and garnishes look together. As chefs we take pleasure in food, and ‘working the plate” is a part of that pleasure. Gayle and I both plan the ingredients and think about presentations long before the Salmon is placed in the pan. In fact, our staff affectionately refers to Gayle as the “Garnish Goddess.”
By creatively plating you can visually stimulate your diner’s appetite and imagination. The most exciting plate presentations arouse interest and a sense of gastronomic expectancy. Here are some of the principles we keep in mind as we prepare plates for presentation:
The Concepts: Plate presentation concepts are similar to fine art. The chef works with a palette of different colors, shapes, textures, and flavors, and arranges them with the principles of artistic composition in mind: balance, harmony, and contrast. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the main ingredients remain the focal point. The way you showcase them should never overwhelm, clash with, or obscure them.
Add to these simple concepts an attempt to avoid repetition and trite standbys (such as the ubiquitous parsley), and you’ll be able to create attractive, enticing plates every time.
The Tools: The most important and dramatic tool a chef can use is the plate itself. Wide choices in color, shape, and size offer a multitude of opportunities to create harmony or contrast, or simply serve as a blank canvas that lets the food speak for itself. Keep different materials in mind such as etched glass, clear glass, and even glass bricks are perfect for serving chilled salads, smoked salmon, and other raw items. Clear glass conveys a cool freshness.
Also consider plate designs as a way to underscore the theme or cuisine of your dinner. We have a colorful “Acapulco” pattern of plates reserved for use with Hispanic themed dinners. Chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in Yountville, CA, has an array of plate styles for service. A table might feature a number of different plate designs, each chosen to complement diners’ individual food selections.
How you arrange the food on your plates is another aspect of presentation. When serving more than one item, consider Asian design principles, an odd number of items or asymmetrical placement will look more intriguing than a two-by-two or grid-like arrangement.
Gayle and I have seen (and been guilty of practicing) intricate architectural stacking and towering. For one recent dinner we began with a dollop of sauce topped with a round of polenta, topped that with a pork belly medallion, which was layered with a bed of caramelized onions, and topped with a vertical sprig of greenery. If restrained, stacking remains an effective and dramatic technique. However, too much altitude can border on the bizarre. Remember, simplicity can make a design statement all by itself.
Other principles to keep in mind include avoiding portions that are too small in relation to plate size, or portions that are too big, such as the off-putting chicken fried steak the size of a small throw-rug.
We often use complementary and colorful sauces, reductions and coulis. For example, a pair of colorful, contrasting sauces creatively “painted” or drizzled on the plate will enhance appetizers, main courses, and desserts. We make colorful paints of grilled peppers, fruit, and chocolates that we can squirt into patterns using a squeeze bottle.
Herbs such as torn basil or sprigs of fresh dill and seasonings such as pepper flakes can accent flavor while adding color contrast. Greenery – curly endive, cress, or pea shoots, for example -and nuts or seeds such as black mustard, cracked coriander, or sunflower also add taste and visual interest. Artfully carved produce items make excellent garnishes – such as our radish mice. Two principles to keep in mind: they should be fresh and in season, and serve as an enhancement to the item they’re garnishing. We grow and garnish with organic edible flowers as well. Importantly, never put anything on a plate that is not edible.
Even the old stand-by lemon, one of the more common pairings for seafood, can make a dramatic impression if looked at differently. We will cut a thin millimeter-thin strip of zest pared all the way around the cut edge of the fruit, and then knot it in the middle, creating a vary Zen-like presentation. For the finishing touch use props like colorful folded napkins table runners and flowers.
Color, texture, shapes, and arrangements work together for the art of plate presentation. However, to get full measure for your splendid work make sure that the food and the garnishes taste good as well. Present it as a combination of taste and aesthetics. Feast your eyes and your palate for that wonderful dinner experience. Bon Appetit!
By David Darugh, Former Executive Chef, Beechwood Inn; Gayle Darugh, Pastry Chef and Garnish Goddess, Beechwood Inn. At their home they now feature Chef’s Table Tasting Dinners using the best of local, organic and sustainable products from Georgia farms, vineyards and orchards