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Monthly Archives: June 2012

Things I Learned In my High School Art Class and The Art of Plating

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My Favorite table creation, EVER.

When I was in High School, I took every Art class that I possibly could. I love Art.  I’ve always loved Art and being a chef, a lot of times, allows me to tap into some of those skills that have developed from this love. People often ask me where it is that I’ve learned to create such visually pleasing dishes, and while I have been thankful enough to have the ability to have learned techniques from some very accomplished chefs, I more often than not reply, ” In my 10th grade Art class.” A lot of the basic principles of art that you learned as a teenager (in between passing notes to your High School crush and staring at the clock on the wall, of course) will serve you well in the pursuit of becoming a master-plater.

Food, believe it or not, is not just about taste. We eat with our eyes just as much as we do with our taste buds and there’s nothing better then when a well-prepared and flavorful dish collides with stunning presentation. Suffice to say, it’s not as difficult or complicated as some of you may think.

When I first really started getting into cooking – I must admit, I wasn’t overly worried about the presentation of my food as much as I was worried about the fact that all of the components of my dish were prepared properly.  This is somewhat of a golden rule that I still keep to this day and you should too. Before you worry about presentation you must first worry about acquiring the ability to cook and prepare all of your dish’s components properly and also the ability to understand which ingredients are the best to use.  Remember: Even if you are the Picasso of peaches and pears, putting a rotten or ill-cooked piece of fruit on your plate will not leave your client with a fond memory of your dish and will only lead to disappointment upon consumption. You must Learn to enhance colors and not destroy them by the cooking process. You must learn how to create a nice crust on your proteins. You must learn to season well. I could go on forever. Remember: There isn’t a single soul who learned to run before they knew how to walk. Start with the small picture. Pay  attention to your individual ingredients and how they look and taste as a singular item before  treating them all as a unified dish. This will help your dish come together more cohesively. After you do this, plan ahead! I’m not afraid to admit that sometimes I still quickly sketch out what it is i’m hoping to achieve in my finished product and while, more often then not, I don’t exactly finish with the product I initially planned, I find that having an end goal helps to keep focus and keep me on the right track. With my individual ingredients and what i’m striving to achieve in mind – I feel that much more organized and focused.

Cooking isn’t brain surgery. It’s just cooking and we all do it. All you have to do is keep it simple and keep your focus. The same goes when you’re plating. Function is also a serious factor to consider. In catering and in restaurants, plating is about visualization, organization, and rapid execution. You MUST know your audience. First, you wouldn’t create the same dish for Grandma’s 90th birthday party that you would for a dinner party of four New York Socialites. It just doesn’t happen. You also wouldn’t create a dish that takes seven, eight, or nine, steps to plate when you are required to plate the same dish quickly 250 times for a client’s wedding reception. Three would suffice. The dish MUST function well to be executed well. Especially if you are working with other chefs in your kitchen.

Taking function a step further, there are a lot of questions that you can ask yourself pertaining to your garnishes. I am not a big fan of inedible garnishes. I don’t care how pretty they are, there is no function to them. Ask yourself these questions: What is the reason this garnish is on the plate? Is it necessary? Why? How does this tie into the dish as a whole? Adding more to a dish doesn’t necessarily make it better. Remember what I said before about keeping it simple? I meant it.  This means please, please, please, pleassseeeeee keep your tree-like sprigs of rosemary and thyme out of my potatoes and hold the sprinkle of parsley that looks like lawn trimmings. You’re just embarrassing yourself by showing your age with your early 90’s garnishing techniques. I miss Boy Meets World, The Spice Girls, and my Trapper-Keeper, just like the rest of us…but the 90’s are over and it’s time to move on. Keep the dish simple. Keep your garnishes simple and always have a reason for everything that you do.

Most human beings will recognize unity and good composition and most don’t realize how much the human eye as well as the human palette appreciate contrast. Utilize contrast in your dish. Everything should not be a puree just like everything on your plate should not be crunchy. Letting your textures play off one another will enhance your dish just as having different elements of sweet, spicy, hot, cold, etc will. Utilizing odd numbers also helps. I’ve worked with a lot of chefs that swear by the “rule of odds”, and mostly I do too. The rule of odds basically states that objects in odd numbers brings unity to a composition. For example: When plating scallops – use three or five instead of four or six. When there is an odd number of objects one object tends to look framed by the others which in turn looks harmonious and pleasing to the eye. Achieving Unity will always lead you to successful results.

Just because you are done cooking, it doesn’t mean you are done using good technique! Always use good plating technique. For example: when plating fresh greens, “Fluff! Don’t Squish! Be Graceful!” You want to build height and make them look light and airy not big and flat. Working with the right tools and techniques will always help. There are so many different tools that you can use and most of them are common kitchen items. A common ring mold can help you achieve height, a simple paint brush can help give you beautiful strokes of color, a squeeze bottle can help give you precise lines for direction in your dish or just to add a few dots of color. I could go on forever about tools and toys in the kitchen (Any type of Chef store is my proverbial candy store).

While all of this may seem like a lot to take in, I hope that you can take this information and work with it to produce some killer results! Don’t be afraid to experiment! Success never comes without failure. Get in your kitchen and see what works best for you and your style. Start creating dishes that YOU love before you try to please anyone else and the rest will follow, I promise! (Oh, and don’t forget to use clean plates!)

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I’m Ten Times Happier When it’s Grill Season….

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There’s no better feeling then trading in your winter jacket for a pair of shorts and your mittens in for a pair of grill tongs. Grilling is the simplest, humblest, and most basic method of cooking food that their is. And it’s just plain awesome. While you don’t have to be a pro to get great results, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite tips to help you reach that level.

1. Season your food early. In fact, season your food before you even think about heating up your grill. Giving salt a little time to dissolve onto your food instead of falling off onto the grill will do wonders for your flavor.

2. Get your grill hot!!! Let it warm up for about 15 – 20 minutes. Patience is a virtue. A hot grill will sear meat on contact creating more flavor through carmelization and will also keep things nice and moist inside.

3. Give yourself enough room to work – nothing is worse then trying to have a relaxing time while grilling then having to run around for tools or ingredients or not having a place to put anything.

4. Keep a reasonably clean grill. Last years food doesn’t make for great additional seasoning to this years food. A grill brush can be your best friend. Use it when the grill is hot not cold, it will be easier that way.

5. Oil up your rack. To prevent sticking and to also help with cleanup later, trying using an oil soaked paper towel and rubbing it over the rack with a pair of tongs. You should even oil a clean grill.

6. Leave an unheated place on the grill. Even if you’re cooking over a single-level fire, leave a small space unheated so that you have somewhere to move food if you have a flare-up or if something is cooking too fast.

7. Remember when you’re mother told you as a kid not to play with your food? Well Mommy was right. When you put food on the grill DON’T PLAY WITH IT. LEAVE IT ALONE. Give it a chance to naturally come away from the grates and not get stuck. If you try to move food before it is seared on the bottom I guarantee you that it will stick. And that’s just not fun for anybody.

8. One of the best 25 dollars I have spent is in purchasing a grill basket. Use it for foods that might fall easily through the cracks or are harder to turn over one by one: Ie Vegetables and even fruit. Even Target or Walmart carry some decent ones. No need to splurge a lot of money on one.

And last but not least…..

9. One of the biggest mistakes that most make is not letting their meat rest before cutting into it. Let your meat rest on a clean plate, covered with foil for about 5-7 minutes so that the juices can redistribute evenly. Trust me, your food is not “getting cold”, you just took it off of a large amount of heat, it is still cooking. I’ve had a lot of people ask me, “well then, how do I know if its done?”. The best way is to learn what your product feels like when it is done. The “longer it cooks, the firmer it gets” is a good rule to go by. The more experience you get, the more you’ll be able to tell exactly what your favorite food should feel like when it’s done and it is an important thing to learn. But, while your still learning, remember: When in doubt, you can always throw undercooked food back on the grill, overcooked food doesn’t have the same luxury. Use the above pictures to show you exactly what meat should feel like through the stages of doneness.

Happy Grilling! We expect an invite!

(Photo credit: http://www.simplyrecipes.com)