Let’s face it–we spend more time in the wilderness getting “up close and personal” with the great outdoors than most people. We pride ourselves in being not only physically fit and properly outfitted, but being keenly observant, noticing the smallest details such as a bent twig, a tuft of fur or a broken blade of grass.
But what happens to those finely-honed senses of observation when we get into an urban environment–specifically a fine dining restaurant that prides itself on not only their food, but on their food presentation? Often we are so engrossed with cellphones, conversation and cocktails that we fail to notice what is literally right beneath our noses–mainly that the kitchen staff has not randomly tossed everything on the plate in front of us, but in fact, has arranged each carefully selected morsel into a culinary portrait designed to please the eye as well as the palate. Indeed, plating is a skill often overlooked by even the most ardent diner. In fact, the tendency is often to just grab our knife and fork and have at it.
In all fairness, it wasn’t until the fairly recent advent of television and cable cooking shows such as Master Chef, America’s Test Kitchen, and Chopped that “plating” was even a word in most consumers’ vocabulary. Now, of course, everybody with a flat screen in their home can become an “expert,” or at least, vaguely familiar with some of the skills that it takes to make a meal visually enticing. Something as simple as wiping the sauce from the perimeters of a plate of spaghetti before it is served or placing a slice of tomato in the center of a salad adds a subliminal visual appeal. But plating can be more complex than that–and usually is.
One of the most dramatic examples of plating occurs in the Barton G restaurants in Miami and West Hollywood, where famed party planner Barton G. Weiss, who has produced events for clients such as the PGA, Ryder Cup and BMW Championship, has transformed his skills to the restaurant table. There, for example, if you order The Great American Steak–choosing either a char broiled 16 ounce boneless rib eye or an 8 ounce Angus filet mignon–it comes with a 2 ½ foot long crossed knife and fork rising up out of the platter. Plus the roasted bone marrow herb butter is served in an actual cross-section of bone, and the black pepper bordelaise sauce pours out of the mouth of a cow-shaped porcelain pitcher. Likewise, a side order of Mouse Trap Mac ’N Cheese is presented on a giant mousetrap, and the Chocolate Treasure dessert consists of chocolate brownies, house made ice cream and gold chocolate doubloons all piled inside a wooden pirate’s chest that sits on a pile of graham cracker “sand” dusted with 24 kt gold flakes.
At Hakkasan, with restaurants in London, India, Abu Dhabi, New York, San Francisco, Beverly Hills and Las Vegas, their Cantonese cuisine is artfully arranged to mesmerize the diner, as evidenced by their piled-high Crispy Duck Salad, which allows the guest a moment to reflect upon its artistry before it is deconstructed by the waiter and portioned out. And at the multiple Michelin-starred Lorenz Adlon restaurant in Berlin, which offers a spectacular view of the Brandenburg Gate for those fortunate enough to be sitting by a window, Executive Chef Hendrik Otto often delights in personally creating intricate desserts tableside.
Another spectacular setting for equally spectacular platings is at the flagship Studio Restaurant at Montage, Laguna Beach. There, in the Craftsmanship-styled dining room perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Executive Chef Craig Strong skillfully plates his California-French style of cooking in delicate, colorful presentations. Items such as Roasted Veal Rib Eye with purple sweet potato, charred lemon, and brussel sprouts, or Stuffed Onion Carbonara accented with garlic blossoms, and desserts that include Apricot Crisp gelato with pine nut crumbles and lemon thyme are just a few of Chef Strong’s specialties, which are made even more appealing by the use of fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables grown in gardens right outside the Studio entrance. Indeed, intricate plating such as that involves both art and technique.
“The shape of the food should be manicured to be more appealing,” says Chef Strong. “Symmetry of how things are shaped is always appealing to look at and pleasing to the eye. For example, there is a trend today to have negative space on the plate, where the plating is intentionally off center. In constructing a presentation on a plate, I like to have contrasts in color and texture. Purees on the bottom, then proteins, and topped with crunchy vegetables, fried or dried items.”
In addition, certain dishes dictate specific styles of plating. Chef Strong determines whether a sauce needs to be in a bowl or on the plate. He also occasionally uses the rim of the bowl to extend his platings with designs that encouraging diners to push a garnish into the center of the bowl, such as his Hamachi with green apple on the side. However, he notes, when plating, one should avoid putting so much detail into the dishes that the food gets cold before it is served. And as for those diners who are too distracted to notice the creative aspects of the food placed in front of them, Chef Strong has adopted a philosophical attitude.
“I think even if people dive in, they still have taken a mental picture instantly of the food when it is served,” he says. “The look is of course important, but the taste is always the main goal.”
With that in mind, I have included some memorable examples of why we should look before we eat, thereby adding another dimension to our dining enjoyment.–Richard Carleton Hacker