Chefs are artists: the only difference is that their creations are edible. If the kitchen is the studio where colours are thrown together, discarded and hashed out again then the plate is the gallery on which the final creation hangs. Plating is an art. And, like any iconic artist, the best chefs are identifiable by their use of colour, shape and texture. How you present a dish is your signature as a chef – and it’s one worth perfecting.
“Food presentation is just as essential to the success of a dish as its taste and flavour. Imagine how your room looks when it’s messy and how it looks when you clean it up. It’s the same ingredients, but very different results. It’s just as true with food presentation and how the elements are arranged on the plate,” explains Tarek Mouriess, Executive Chef at Fujairah Rotana Resort & Spa.
We eat with our eyes; an interesting arrangement of food promotes a pleasurable experience, even before the dish has been tasted. “The overall purpose of presentation is to plate food in a thoughtful way to makes guests feel special and honoured,” Mouriess continues. Few diners consider presentation when cooking at home – it’s not a factor. The chef’s job is to work this element particularly hard in a restaurant setting and apply the care and attention diners often deny themselves at home.
Plating has never been so important. Thanks to the rise of social media, presentation has become a defining characteristic in successful cheffing. In an Instagram-obsessed world food has to be seriously good looking. “If the presentation of a dish is truly interesting and unique, restaurants might even find diners talking not just about the food but the visual spectacle as well,” observes Renu Oommen, Chief Marketing Officer at RAK Porcelain.
And no where is presentation more important than in the UAE, a country obsessed by aesthetics and with a particularly competitive restaurant industry. With new F&B offerings popping up across the Emirates every month, restaurants must continually innovate their plating techniques if they are to stay ahead of the pack. Chefs must design with #Instafood in mind. The melting chocolate bomb is a prime example of this. Search for the dessert on Youtube, Instagram or Facebook and countless videos appear. Suddenly the reach of the chef, restaurant and hotel has shot up. Kooky presentation techniques pay off.
But chefs must have good knowledge of the basics rules of plating in order to break them. “The classical plating technique uses the three basic food items of starch, vegetables and protein in a specific arrangement. The presentation should never overpower flavour and function. Chefs must ensure the main ingredient stands out and the presentation supports it,” outlines Oommen. It’s a delicate balance, and one that is not always easy to strike.
Consideration must be given to the canvas too. “It’s important to have the right plate to present the dish on – it should space the right amount of food at the right temperature and should be easy to use in service. That’s what we consider when designing our range of professional plates,” Oommen explains. White is a timeless classic, but colour is increasingly creeping onto restaurant tables. Bold primary coloured plates and bowls, particularly in matt finishes, are becoming more common, particularly in restaurants specialising in Asian and Latin cuisine.
Once the dish has been selected the artistry can truly begin. One meal can be plated in hundreds of ways; the beauty of cheffing is that no two chefs will handle the food in exactly the same way. “Every chef creates a signature with their dishes. They visualise their dish even before it’s actually made,” smiles Oommen. And inspiration can be found in a number of trends influencing plating techniques.
The first style that has found popularity in recent years is the landscape approach. Inspired by the look of landscape gardens, this technique places the food in a long, and usually low, line along the plate. Continuing with the outdoors theme, another trend involves plating food on natural, organic materials, such as wood, slate or stone. This plating technique seems to be particularly popular with vegetarian and vegan dishes, emphasising the rustic wholesomeness of the food.
More abstract trends include ‘free form’ presentation where the food is scattered about the plate seemingly at random – the modernist painting of the food world. A more futuristic take on plating uses sleek, industrial materials such as glass, mirrors and steel as the base for dishes. Finally, perhaps the most popular trend here in the UAE right now is doing away with the conventional plate altogether. The Emirates’ infamous institution of Friday brunch sees some of the most outlandish plating techniques in the region. Test tubes hold shots of gazpacho, artisan bread is hung from butchers hooks and both drinks and individual desserts are presented in jam jars. The tone is one of fun and experimentation – guests are encouraged to approach eating from a fresh perspective.
Further afield in the US, chefs are taking the plating revolution one step further. The Maines Food Show, held in New York last year, saw a world of wacky and weird presentation techniques. Cured meats and cheeses were placed on wax paper and then clipped to a board for a unique charcuterie presentation. Baby vegetables were skewered on wooden sticks and made to stand up straight to form a ‘veg hedge’. Sushi was brought out on a collapsed board, which was then expanded to form a five foot long tray. All innovative and impressive. But perhaps the best idea was the floating Gougère puffs carried by a trio of balloons; a brilliant way of communicating their light as air texture.
The Maines Food Show showcased some of the more outlandish plating trends emerging onto the F&B scene. Less extreme, but equally effective, are the presentation choices being made by chefs in the top restaurants worldwide. JUNI, latin for the month of June, is a one michelin-starred New York restaurant dedicated to offering seasonal dishes. For his Spring inspired tasting menu chef Shaun Hergatt only used produce in various shades of green and plated the dish on a bed of pebbles and flowers. A beautiful visual representation of the season.
In the Ritz-Carlton Wolfsburg, Germany, Sven Elverfeld – chef de cuisine of the 3-Michelin starred restaurant ‘Aqua’ – presents his seafood dish in an Oyster shell laid on a bowl of shells. Less delicate is chef Richard Ekkebus’ creation at the Landmark Mandarian Oriental, Hong Kong. His veal tenderloin wrapped in black truffle is cooked in clay, clay diners must smash with a hammer in order to get at their meal.
With chefs adopting such unconventional approaches to plating it poses an interesting question: is the day of the simple porcelain plate over? Should we start smashing them Greek style now? And if so, what should we replace them with? The answer might be ‘nothing’. A number of dishes at the Maines Food Show were laid out on silicon sheets guests could eat straight off. Food for thought indeed.
Oommen, at least, is confident that chefs will always have a need for porcelain. “We saw a time where gold and silverware were used as plates for food presentation. However it’s always recommended to use porcelain plates as they’re food safe, easy to wash and store and they also complement the qualities needed for food service.” Mouriess isn’t convinced by a handsfree approach either: “I believe that food is an emotional thing – when someone sees the hard work behind your plating it melts the heart.” It seems plating trends can only take root if treated with a human touch.