It’s common knowledge that we eat with our eyes first, which is why, in markets around the world, vendors take great care in stacking produce just so to entice us to buy. Try shopping on an empty stomach to see what I mean. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve returned home with perfect shiny eggplants and a bundle of greens I’ve never tried before, but lacking that carton of milk I set out to purchase in the first place.
That subtle seduction of the visual is also at play when it comes to the arrangement of food on the plate — called plating. Its artful purpose, achieved through arrangement, colour, quantity, garnish and even the plate itself, is to create a meal that is delicious from your first glance to your last mouthful.
Although great plating won’t guarantee your home cooking is transformed into a meal of Michelin-star calibre, a little tweak here and there will help you achieve a touch of magic and professional aplomb to elevate your next dinner party into a stylish soirée.
First the Canvas
While white, round plates are the classic choice to make food stand out, the concept of plating on this blank canvas can be elevated in style by simply using plates of different shapes, from triangular to oblong. You can even experiment with oversized, handmade or mix-and-match plates to ensure your dinner presentation takes on a stylish new life.
Keep an eye out for the unusual at garage sales and on retailer sale tables. And there’s no shame in repurposing what you have. Remember those oversized margarita glasses at the back of your cupboard? They make excellent serving vessels for ceviche, gazpacho or individual tiramisu. A sprig of mint and you’re set. Using teacups to serve chocolate mousse is another fun trick. So is serving appetizers in Asian soup spoons (a caterer’s favourite).
Plating to please
Trends in plating have evolved from the coulis-splattered and vertically stacked presentations of the ’80s and ’90s to a more artful, minimalist style; however, several rules still apply. First, arranging food at various heights still adds visual interest, but there’s no need for the tippy-top extremes that make food difficult to carry to the table. Try this: assemble the starch in the middle
of the plate first in a circular fashion,
lay the protein over top, then lay steamed broccoli rabe over the protein in a criss-cross fashion. Then encircle a sauce around the whole thing. Or apply a dramatic stroke of sauce to one side
of the plate.
Less is more. By simply grouping food together on the plate, you achieve an illusion of abundance while creating negative space for visual effect — and if you offset the food on the plate, you not only create a wide border but add visual interest as well.
Creatively use colour and shape. For example, serve long green beans with bright orange baby carrots cut on the diagonal. Don’t forget texture too. Grains are great for this. From Israeli couscous and red rice to quinoa and bulgur — they should all be part of your culinary playbook.
Chef Brad Holmes of Ulla Restaurant creates wondrous plates that balance shapes, textures and colours. Although his advanced style of cooking, which involves dehydration, sous-vide and lacto-fermentation, is out of reach for most for us, his advice to “keep it simple” when it comes to plating style is sound.
We’ve come a long way since that lonely sprig of parsley was the pièce de resistance of a plate of food. With the trend towards wild foraged ingredients, garnishing possibilities are endless. Bright green grand fir shoots or miner’s lettuce are some of the trending favourites. If you’re not ready for the wilds, fresh herbs add visual pizzazz, whether used whole, sprinkled around a plate or freshly julienned. Edible flowers can be used for sweet or savoury garnishes, providing extra colour as well as texture and flavour variety (ideal for perking up salads). Calendula petals, borage flowers or punchy chive blossoms are some of my favourites (and don’t forget violas, which provide an exquisite pop of colour atop a dessert).
Bonus points go to garnishes that add a complementary flavour component to a dish. Microgreens, the tiny young version of herbs and vegetables, are the current chef’s favourite. They provide a delicate touch of flavour and a visual flourish.
Whatever your creative style, remember to have fun when it comes to plating: use your eyes to lead you to your taste buds. Bon appétit!
By Shelora Sheldan