Eating with your Eyes – The Art of Plating!
Different plating styles come and go, become fashionable and go out of fashion. When I was a young trainee chef, nouvelle cuisine was the trend. Nouvelle cuisine is, in essence, very small amounts of food, beautifully created and presented. At that time, fast-food outlets had become popular, and we used to joke about the dishes being so small, you would have to stop on your way home from your dinner to get a takeaway!
Planning and preparation is the most important aspect of successful plating. I first decide what I am going to prepare (cook or bake) and then how I’m going to serve it. I do this before working on the actual presentation.
Eating is a visual experience, so creating a beautiful plate is extremely important. If the food looks appetizing, you are more likely to want to try it and, more importantly, enjoy it – hence the term ‘eating with your eyes’.
Crusted salmon, salmon mousse, dill cream and gazpacho.
One question that I am often asked is how to decide what to plate up?
This is all in the planning stage. Make sure that your menu flows and that you do not repeat any of the ingredients or styles of cooking for the courses you are considering, for example, do not serve a souffle as a starter and then again as a dessert.
Another frequent question is, which is the best shape plate to use?
Nowadays there are a wide range of options available, round, oval, square and different colours and textures. Plates are usually purchased to suit the theme or style of the restaurant / catering establishment but there are considerations when selecting the menu.
When planning, you should consider if the items on your menu and the final plating design are the best fit for the plates that you use in your establishment.
The ease of transporting, stacking, and carrying plates also need to be considered. For example, if you run an event catering company, you will need to transport the plates to the venue without them getting damaged. In a restaurant venue, you need to consider how far a server would need to carry the plates from the kitchen to the restaurant whilst maintaining the integrity of the presented food. If they are bulkier plates, you may need extra servers to carry the food out to the restaurant to ensure that the food arrives hot at the table or, if a dessert that is still chilled when served.
White plates are commonly used as they tend to enhance the food colour and texture, many chefs however use coloured plates, slate plates or even tiles. If you choose to use a bold colour or a patterned plate, be sure that the food details and visual interest is not lost to the plate pattern. Dark plates can provide a striking contrast to food and dazzle the guest.
Be sure to look at the size of the plates and decide which portion or serving size will look best and where it will be best positioned to make the most of the dish. I am particularly fond of the new white ranges of plates with different shapes as they lend themselves to creating beautiful dishes when served.
Different plate styles
Traditional vs Modern
Once you have decided on your menu and the plate that you would like to use for serving, you then design your plate.
The traditional way of plating has always been two vegetables, one green (examples are beans, courgette, baby marrow, spinach and kale), one orange (examples are pumpkin, carrot, butternut and squash), a starch (examples include pasta, rice or a style of potato) and either meat, chicken, fish or protein. Today these components should still be included to create balance on the plate.
The traditional way to plate was in the shape of an analogue clock: protein in 3 to 9 o’clock, starch at 9 to 12 and vegetables at 12 to 3. If you are more comfortable using this traditional style, you can style it up by using a puree. Do you remember the age-old peas and carrots on every plate? These days they are often still a feature but are served as a puree or a mash.
Whilst the traditional clock-face style is still used here and there, more artistic and innovative plating designs have evolved to showcase colour, texture, ingredients, and design, these include stacking food, running food vertically or horizontally, Deconstruction and Free Form Design. Deconstructed Dishes take the traditional elements of a dish or menu item and serve them in individual form. Free Form Design is where elements are neatly arranged using the whole area of the plate or serving platform. Both Deconstruction and Free Form are popular these days.
Key elements to decide are the visual colour and contrasts. The cooking methods will determine the textures; will you be searing, frying, roasting, poaching, or steaming each item? Vegetable purees or mash add a soft texture; crispy deep fried vegetable chips, wafers or tuilles are often used to create a crispy texture on the plate. If you want to create height you will stack the components or use a mould to assist in creating the height. To create balance on the plate, make sure the proportions of vegetable to starch to protein are correct. The main element on a plate is called the “hero”. A guideline is a 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 for each of the three elements portions.
Typically, one uses odd numbers on the plate, so, one, three or five. These are used in the elements of food but also in the design that you use, for example an odd number of slices in the garnish or odd number of dots on the plate.
Planning your plate
I like to start by planning my design on paper, this way I will have an idea of what my dish will look like, I use this as a starting point and then I make changes when I visually see what I have designed.
Sketches of plates
Once I have my design, I plate using the following steps:
Step 1: Place ingredients, such as mashed potatoes or purees, on the dish.
Step 2: Plate the main “hero” element – add your main hero item such as meat, poultry or fish.
Step 3: Place the rest of your ingredients on top to keep them from shifting and ruining your perfect plate.
Step 4: Lastly, add the sauce and suitable complimentary garnishes.
Tools for success
Before decorating the plate, I recommend that you have a range of equipment available to use for the plating. A typical range of small plating tools includes squeeze bottles for your sauce, useful when catering for large numbers. Tweezers, for picking up and placing small and fine items. Tongs, for picking up and placing food onto the plate. Precision spoons, for consistency and portion control. Moulds for consistency and to show off items on the plate. An offset palate knife, decorating brushes, small fine sieve and a range of small piping bags will all be used to present your perfect plate.
Small tools used for plating
Saucing is probably one of the most important components of the dish as it creates an instant visual contrast and adds flavour and colour. A jus, fragrant infused oils or a coulis are perfect for this. For example, a rich dark jus, such as a red wine jus, can be used for beef, lamb, veal, or chicken. My personal favourite is a basil, chilli, or truffle infused oil to complement a dish. The additional benefit of using infused oils is that they add colour to the plate; basil will be green, chilli red, or turmeric yellow. Of course, the oil or Jus will need to compliment the other colours and flavours on the plate. For starters and desserts, fruit coulis can be added as a smear, drizzle, dollop or large to small accent dots on the plate. These can be kept in your saucing bottles which can be stored refrigerated and heated if required.
Garnish to Compliment
Once you have all the elements on the plate, in which ever style you have selected, your final stage is garnishing. There are a few rules to garnishing, the most important is that it must be edible, in fact, a pet-hate of mine is when I am served an inedible garnish. Garnishes should complement the dish and never overpower it. Do you remember how we used to serve a big piece of parsley on a slice of tomato, or a huge sprig of mint on a dessert? I am so pleased that we have refined our plating techniques since then!
Other great garnish ideas include edible flowers, gels, light herb leaves, micro herbs, sauce dollops and or drops of infused oils.
Oven roasted lamb loin, pea mash, carrot puree, and red wine jus.
Let’s chat about desserts.
It is often said that dessert is the most important dish of the meal, the one dish that creates an impression and one your guests will always remember. As the saying goes, “you are only as good as your last dish that you served”. Even though plating desserts is time consuming, it is personally one of my favourites, it is really rewarding when you WOW your guests!
A few guidelines for plating desserts; firstly keep them clean and simple, don’t crowd the plate, and relate your garnishes to the dessert on the plate. Layer flavours and textures in your dessert and try different plates—various shapes and sizes.
The garnish, your final touch to a plated dessert, can be just about anything, as long as it’s edible, delicious and creates an effect. There are such a broad range of choices and techniques other than mint leaves! Freeze dried berries, couverture chocolate, soils, spherification, gels, spun sugar designs and chocolate swirls can complement your perfect dessert.
Top 10 Plating Tips
My Top Ten Tips for Plating:
- Plan your menu.
- Choose the appropriate plate for serving.
- Consider the quantities of each element.
- Plan which style you will be using.
- Draw up a visual design.
- Place the items in the order you have designed.
- Place the garnishes you have planned to use.
- Check for colour, symmetry and texture.
- Clean the rim of the plate.
- Keep it Simple and Serve with Pride.
Pre-COVID, when we could travel freely, I was invited to dinner at Spago, considered to be one of the top restaurants in Beverly Hills, LA in California, USA, and it was certainly a dream experience. When the chefs heard that I was an executive chef and involved in culinary education, we were sent many additional dishes to taste and experience. The care, precision, flavours, textures, plating and presentation that had gone into every dish was phenomenal. We left the restaurant with an amazing sense pleasure, something to remember forever and that we could definitely tick off our bucket list.
You are the chef and your plate is your canvas, always try to create a picture of visual beauty. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different components using textures, flavours, height, and balance, and before serving be sure to wipe the rims of plates with a clean kitchen towel to complete our artwork!
My tip: Keep it simple and let your signature be on every plate.
Keep it Cooking!