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!)