This post was last updated on Jul 23, 2020.
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Dining rooms, menus, approaches to cooking, and even service styles all span geographies and cultures.
So, the way the food is presented to customers can mean any one of a million things to the people preparing the food as well as the customers eating the dish.
With Instagram, food blogs, and Aunt Nancy sharing last night’s entree on Facebook, food presentation really does matter. Not that it didn’t before, but now the look of food travels at the speed of social media.
Beautiful plating has to navigate the lines of form and function. Too functional, and the look is institutional at best, boring at worst. Too artsy, and the food gets lost in a mire of confusion.
Here are seven tips to get the right look that keeps that balance in perspective.
1. Sky Cuisine
The layered look for the sake of gaining altitude is a dubious prospect. Not everything on the plate belongs sandwiched together.
Unless you are Primanti Brothers, don’t layer the side dishes onto every sandwich, for instance. Flat-ish can work. Plating with dabs of color, various textures, and interesting knifework can take the place of a precariously perched stack of impending doom.
2. Bent Nostalgia
Beautiful presentation can stir oohs and ahhs. And if you can bend a euro-centric comfort dish into something more than the old look of meatloaf and mashed potatoes, you score some points.
Shepherd's pie is a familiar friend. Gobbets of tender lamb braised with vegetables and topped with potatoes are usually plopped in the center of a plate.
What if the integrity of the dish stayed the same, but the look shifted? What if it were finished in an individual serving vessel? Or baked en croute? Or layered with various potatoes, without changing the integrity of the dish itself? Comfortable doesn’t have to mean worn out.
3. Cast Iron Pans, Baskets, Buckets
Mismatched plates, the occasional cast iron pan, Mason jars, and free-form slabs of wood for the shared meat and cheese board work for cultivating plating interest.
The need for restraint must be muscled. Too much variety and the table looks more like a yard sale than a dining experience. Cornbread for the table looks great in a black pan tucked with honey butter under a blue stripe kitchen towel. A paper cone filled with popcorn crayfish is novel.
4. Microgreen Warfare
The value of that little punch of flavor that pinch of micro-celery delivers is wasted when said green shows up on every single dish. Remember that little sprig of parsley on top of the meatloaf, back in 1979? Or the orange slice on top of the piece of kale?
Microgreen mayhem is heading there. It took a while for the pricy, baby green to get mainstream.
Microgreens lend color, flavor and visual interest. So use them where they have value. Will the flavor contribute to the dish? Does it make sense to add a delicate green to this particular dish? Ask valid questions, rather than haphazardly—and carelessly —dispensing of pricy herbaceous growth that is going to get tossed to the side with that slice of orange.
A photo posted by The Art of Plating (@theartofplating) on Jan 6, 2017 at 8:02am PST
A quick search on Instagram of #foodiepic, #foodporn, or #beautifulfood will give you a myriad specimens of dishes that, after a while, start to look the same. They have very little in common; the proteins are different, the portions and the flavors vary, but their compositions look eerily similar. There is a "photo-ready" formula that makes some plates simply look better than others.
A little further digging will also reveal plating catastrophes - from silly missteps to downright kitchen calamities that may have started with good intention, but lost the singular mission along the way.
Instagram-worthy food is judged on looks alone. Not every dish has to be ‘Gram worthy. Rather, keeping plates out of the hall of shame is a good first step. Interesting knife cuts, the sauce that is already part of the dish, or the central tenant of the dish can stand all on their own.
6. Clean Lines Only Go So Far
When I was in culinary school, I took a nod from Emeril’s “Bam!” approach and flicked an array of colorful, dry spices around the rim of the plate - only to have the restaurant’s chef use his side-towel to wipe it all clean. That clean rim is still a border for where the food ends and the table begins.
Within the confines of the plate surface, all is fair, though. Swooshes with the back of spoon across a dribble of sauce is commonplace. Little eye-dropper puddles of various sauces and color composition work. The smack of spoon on a sauce to spray rivulets of accompanying sauce can add a flourish of color and interest.
The Jackson Pollock-esque splatters go far with dishes that have very symmetrical components. Stenciled lines of sauce across a straight-edge paints a border for which to present, say, a protein and draw in attention.
7. The Balsamic Drizzle Rule
See it from the customer’s view. Does it make sense? Does it taste good? If the presentation takes away from the flavor of the food, like a vividly colored sauce that ‘pops’ but detracts from the taste, then it is not a good presentation move.
For some time (even now!), chefs would drizzle sweetly sticky balsamic reduction on just about everything.
It can work. The itty, bitty lines held and can be quite dramatic.
So what’s the problem? It adds absolutely nothing to some dishes, but it certainly can take away the integrity of the flavor. Does the garnish pass the Balsamic Drizzle Rule (BDR)? Does it look good and work with the flavor of the food? If no on either account, it breaks the rule. A contributing flavor is essential for the success of the garnishing sauce, especially when being used for plate presentation.
What Are Your Food Presentation Techniques?
“It's so beautifully arranged on the plate - you know someone's fingers have been all over it,” extolled Julia Child.
Overly fussed-with food loses a certain something while threatening banality. Less is more. We eat with our eyes first, but what comes next? Use these guidelines that make sense for your operation, highlighting the food itself and presentation becomes more of an adventure and less of a chore.