When plating, it’s important to really think things through—how will you get the visual effect you want?—but also to make sure you don’t over-think and over-manipulate things, so it still feels natural.
Greek yogurt panna cotta
The cylinder shape just spoke to me the day I made this dish. The shape gives movement, a direction. But panna cotta should be a custard that’s just barely holding together, so once you do something freestanding, you’re compromising that. My idea was to freeze it so I could handle it and put it on the plate, then let it temper in the fridge.
We made a strawberry consommé with citrus and basil, and set it with agar-agar for strength and gelatin so it will melt on the tongue. I wanted the strawberry and yogurt to be tasted together, so draping it as a film over the panna cotta assured me of that.
Basil pain de Gênes cake
Pain de Gênes is an almond paste-based cake. I like it for a plated dessert because it doesn’t crumble so much; it’s still soft and moist. And I like the idea of using just a little bit of cake as a garnish – flipping that sense that in dessert, cake has to be the center of the plate.
There are five pieces because I like to use odd numbers (unless you’re just doing two of something). Even look numbers look odd… I mean as in strange! Asymmetrical arrangements look more pleasant – they give a sense of motion. And odd numbers naturally give some asymmetry. For the same reason, I didn’t want all the corners of the cake pieces facing the same way.
I’m also using the cake to kind of define the field of the plate, giving a lot of white space on the outside. In 8th grade, I was on the yearbook staff. The one lesson I took away from that was not to give too much white space in the center, because your eyes go directly to it.
Speaking of asymmetry, I made sure to face one of the strawberries pieces in the opposite direction from the others. I like to cut “rings” from the narrowest centimeter of strawberries because it’s an unusual shape; most people see them in wedges. And it keeps them small, because it’s a panna cotta dish, not a strawberry dish.
Basil seeds soaked in basil syrup
Basil seeds are a fun little ingredient with a squeaky kind of snap. That’s really the only “texture” element on the plate. In the 90’s, dessert was: something in the center of the plate, a cold component, a sauce, and a crisp tuile. But I don’t obsess over what every dish “has” to have anymore. Because yogurt is a little lighter and cleaner, I didn’t want a lot of things to compete with that.
Celery really brings herbal, slightly vegetal flavors, and I like using that as a strong constant, like acidity or bitterness or salt. The slices are blanched in water, then cooked lightly in simple syrup, not as long as you would to truly candy something, because I want to preserve the green color. I didn’t mean to make the colors look like Christmas, but red and green do look good with one another.
There are tricks we can use to evoke certain responses. One is to make things look “natural,” like here, making the leaves look like they fell out of the sky. I soaked them in ice water to make them curve more, and plated it with the curve upwards, so it looks like it just landed on the plate.
You don’t see it as much in this photo, but if you look at it from the side or from the diner’s view, the curve in the leaves gives you a different sense of movement. I placed the leaves as if they were actually touching three inches above the plate, and then let them fall away from each other.
But it’s important to not overthink things, to let your design get in the way. The dish has to hit you in a visceral way first, where someone enjoys it without knowing what they’re looking at.
To teach his students the importance of food presentation and the skills necessary for food plating, Wynne has incorporated some slightly unorthodox methods. Wynne, a sculptor and painter before he moved his focus to cooking, has his students use Play-Doh to sculpt food for their Art Culinaire five-course practical exam.
Although Wynne’s teaching methods might be out of the ordinary, his ideas about art and food presentation are widely held in the restaurant industry.
One such artistic chef is Alyson Crispin, who took her creative upbringing into the kitchen with her when she began her career in restaurants.
Crispin’s father had been a food photographer, and while growing up, food and the visual arts were always a part of her family’s life.
“That art background made it on the plate,” says Crispin, who has worked as a sous chef at both Mama’s Fish House in Hawaii and The Hartwood Restaurant in Pittsburgh.
“When you are plating food, you want to balance out the tastes, colors, and textures,” Crispin says. “Make it like a painter’s pallet.”
She believes that the diner’s experience is heavily tied to what they see on the plate, and that this visual presentation will actually change the restaurant-goers’ opinions of the taste of the food.
“If it’s not visually appealing, it can affect how [the diners] feel it tastes,” Crispin says. “How it appears to [the diner] determines how it’s going to taste.”
To get this desired affect, chefs like Crispin incorporate a number of visual techniques and strategies.
“I tend to like to add some elements of surprise,” Crispin says.
“Adding just a little more color to anything will make the plate more appealing,” she adds.
Although a little color can go a long way, it takes more than a strategically placed garnish to make a good meal; the food still has to taste good.
“It’s planned out to look appealing, and sometimes it’s backed up and sometimes it isn’t,” Crispin says about chefs who believe they can make up for sub par food with exquisite presentation.
Achieving both a superior look and taste is the Holy Grail in the kitchen, and the goal of anyone who dons kitchen whites.
“That’s a masterpiece when you can get the balance between taste and aesthetics,” Crispin says.
For the visually inclined, a meal can be as exciting to look at as it is to eat. Plating–the process of designing the presentation of a dish–may be inexplicable to the uninitiated, but there’s actually a strong functional element to it, since the design of a plate will dictate the sequence of tastes and textures a diner will experience.
Like any art, it is vital to master the basic rules – only after you have done this can you impose individual creativity. And to do this you must understand the rules and philosophies that lie behind each type of cuisine.
Perhaps one of the most distinct styles of plating is seen in Japanese cuisine. It is based on a tradition of minimalist style.
Portions are individually separated and pieces of meat and vegetables are sliced small for ease of use with chopsticks.
Japanese cuisine follows seven methods of food arrangement – the use of which depends on the ingredients and chinaware: sugimori is a standing or slanting arrangement; hiramori is a flat design
with slices of sashimi placed vertically; yamamori is mound-like; tawaramori are blocks of food placed in a pyramid; yosemori is gathered; chirashimori is gathered but with space between the ingredients, and ayamori is woven. Using these arrangements as a basis, chefs can develop their own styles of presentation.
According to Imai Masakazu, Executive Chef at Inagiku, the Japanese restaurant at the Four Seasons in Central, traditions of Japanese plating developed as a reflection of the seasons.
“Japan has very distinct seasons and with each change comes a whole host of ingredients and fresh foods that are used,” Masakazu says. “The arrangement of food should echo the seasonality of the food. This is done through the use of different chinaware, flowers and leaves.”
The use of contrast is vital throughout Japanese cuisine. When selecting tableware, a law of opposites is employed. If the food is round in shape, then a square or long, narrow flat dish is used. The same applies to the use of colours, says Oyvind Naesheim, Executive Chef at NOBU InterContinental on the Harbourside, who likens the art of plating to painting a picture.