Plating and Presentation
Posted 18 March 2005 - 09:44 AM
Currently a Chef Instructor at a Central Florida culinary college, Chef Tony Adams first developed an interest in culinary arts in his hometown of Fairfield, Maine. He pursued his passions and pursued a Bachelor's Degree in Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. While in Providence, Chef Adams joined the team at Empire, the restaurant owned by Chefs Loren Falsone and Eric Mosier, two of Food and Wine Magazine's Top Ten Best New Chefs, working up to Operations Manager there when the restaurant closed in the early fall of 2003. He then traveled, working as a stagier in the kitchens of some of the world’s best restaurants and hotels: Le Manoir Aux Quat Saisons in England, Daniel in Manhattan, Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, Primo in Rockland, Maine, and Magnolia Grill in Durham.
The Plating and Presentation course will teach the participants what to look for during the cooking and plating process in order to make their presentations more visually appealing. The course will cover the handling of food, equipment that will aid in the presentation of the food, and the merits and pitfalls of certain plate and platter styles. It will not include any assignments, but after the course, students are encouraged to present photos of their own plating and presentations for discussion and critique by Chef Adams and fellow students.
Posted 21 March 2005 - 08:15 AM
By Tony Adams
Welcome to the food presentation and plating course of the eGullet Culinary Institute. This course curriculum is original, written by myself, and is in no way affiliated with the culinary school where I am an instructor nor the corporation that owns it. The pictures that you will find throughout this course have been taken from a variety of places that I have worked, from my current place of employment, to Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons in England, under permission by my supervisors. Not everything pictured is an Adams original, but I have cooked and plated every one of these dishes, either as their creator or as the cook who replicated someone else's vision over and over again.
I have been lucky enough to work at some of the world's best restaurants both as a stagier and as a paid employee. But there is a lot of food that I cook and present which I am not happy with. I make mistakes every day, and when I create a dish, very rarely do I get it right the first time. I will play and play until I get it right. Working in a place where I have a pretty unlimited supply of various produce and proteins, with one of my goals to teach students how today's industry works, I have been blessed with the perfect opportunity to find my own style, through my constant experimentation with plating and presentations.
I have identified three areas that have a direct correlation to food presentation. The first is, of course, the proper cooking of the food. This is the only element that is controlled by the chef, directly related to his skill; it is also the most important. If it is not done correctly, there is no need to present the food nicely; it will certainly be a disappointment upon consumption. The second element, equipment, is the least important variable, but I will cover a few pieces that I find helpful when it comes to making food look great. The third and final element, plate selection, is based upon the chef's artistic foresight. It is partly controlled by the chef, although he or she has to choose from what is available on the market (unless his name is Thomas Keller, in which case, he would design his own).
When I start to think about a dish that I want to create, the first thing that needs to be decided is, of course, the ingredients. What is in season? What ingredients go together? What is economically in my food cost range? What can I get from my purveyors? These might not sound like things that you have to be concerned with, but if you think about it, you deal with the same issues already. When you go to the grocery store to buy the food for a dinner party, you can only buy what is available, what is in your budget, and what is in season at the time. A good per-person estimate is four to six ounces of cooked protein, two to four ounces of cooked starch, two to four ounces of cooked vegetables, one or two ounces of sauce, and functional garnish as necessary.
Once I have my ingredients, I decide upon the cooking methods I would like to use. This is very important to my final presentation. Dry heat cooking methods -- sauteing, roasting, baking, grilling, or searing -- feature browning the ingredients, either by the Maillard reaction, which pertains to browning proteins, or caramelization, which refers to browning of sugars. The protein on the plate, usually the main player in a main course dish, needs to be cooked properly if it is to be presented nicely. That means that your steak needs to be seared nicely, with a beautiful brown crust on the outside. Your grilled pork tenderloin needs to have nice grill marks on it, in a crosshatch pattern. Your roasted whole chicken should be golden brown with crispy rendered skin. When you use moist heat cooking methods such as poaching, steaming or simmering, the same principle applies. If you are going to serve poached salmon, for instance, you want a nice pink color, without any of the protein coagulation pushing through the flesh in tiny white clumps.
In the picture below, you will see a perfectly seared piece of foie gras, and as you look at it, you can almost feel how it will have that nice seared crust on the outside. Because of the correct searing of the protein, your palate is excited.
First, let's start with dishes that are not cooked; let's talk about a basic green salad, nothing more than organic greens with a dressing. The important thing to remember about a salad is that in order to serve a great looking greens salad, there are two elements that must be met: it has to look beautiful, and it must function as a salad, dressed and presented accordingly. Start by purchasing great greens, and washing, spinning, and storing them properly. If you mess up any one of these three things, you cannot produce a great dish. Second, make your dressing properly. Whether it is a creamy dressing made with a creme fraiche base, or a vinaigrette made simply with olive oil and lemon juice, you have to make sure that the dressing is not curdled, in the instance of a dairy-based dressing, or broken, in a basic vinaigrette dressing. It is very important to make sure that all leaves on a salad are dressed, and I do not mean by drizzling dressing over the top. You're not trying to make a Sizzler salad here, you are trying to make something that looks presentable and nice. Take the time to dress your salads gently, working with your fingertips, rather than bruising the greens by working too quickly, or with utensils. Whenever you hear popping and breaking, you are popping and breaking the leaves, bruising them, which in turn will make their appearance look dark and abused, rather than soft and sexy. When you plate salads, you want to plate them section by section, laying leaves on top of others, rather than plopping a whole mass on a plate.
Which Salad Looks Nicer? (Same amount of Greens, Dressed the Same)
Greens Placed Carefully
When it comes to cooking vegetables, just as with proteins, you also want to determine the final outcome for your product and perform the cooking method perfectly. My preferred cooking methods for vegetables are generally blanching (which quite often finishes with pureeing), and roasting. Sauteing is also a cooking method I like to use, mostly with mushrooms, because of the coloring that occurs.
When cooking vegetables, you have to worry about one thing you do not have to worry about concerning proteins. Some pigments found in produce are heat sensitive. For instance, chlorophyll, the pigment found in green vegetables, is heat sensitive, but the pigment in red vegetables, anthocayanin, and the orange pigment found in carrots, carotenoid, are not. It's important to take this into account in vegetable cookery, as changing pigments can affect the outcome of your dishes drastically.
Once you have your ingredients cooked, the battle has just begun. The main thing you want to watch out for is seepage of liquid. I have seen hundreds of plates ruined by liquid seeping out of meat that has not rested, or vegetables that were cooked and not drained properly. The best way to combat these hazards is to rest your proteins. If you don't do this, as soon as you put that steak on the plate, the liquids are going to start running all over the place. My preferred method for draining vegetables is a plate with a heavy-duty paper towel underneath, which will absorb all of the liquid. I will sometimes use this same method to dry fish that has been cooked in a pan quickly, so I do not get a cooked-and-broken-down oil look on my plates.
Below is a dish with which we had a constant problem, as the cooks at the restaurant had a hard time cooking all of the ingredients perfectly. This is seared Chilean Sea Bass with Roasted Heirloom Tomatoes, Beta Carrots, Micro-Arugula Salad, and Arugula Oil. Note the amount of extra liquid on the plate, as the tomatoes have not been cooked properly, and the carrots were overcooked in too much liquid. Another problem with the dish is that the oil was not strained enough, and therefore, is chunky, which is apparent by the grittiness on the plate. This was the best picture that I took of the dish (which is not saying much).
When it comes to saucing, you want to be careful to remember a sauce's job on the plate. It is there to maintain the moisture of the dish, primarily of the protein, as well as to provide an extreme amount of concentrated flavor that will balance a dish. You have endless options for saucing a plate: brushing a thick sauce on with a pastry brush, making a cordon of sauce with a spoon or ladle, the tadpole look, which is quite popular in more modern cuisine today, and even the age-old pool of sauce on the bottom of the plate. As long as the sauce functions as you wish, it is up to you. I am a huge fan of the tadpole, as I feel that it adds flow to a dish.
Tadpole of Shallot Puree
Cordon of Pesto and Balsamic
Another important point involves aspics and the way that they fit into dishes. Aspics and gelees have become extremely popular of late, and I like them because of their ability to present a liquid as a solid. A good rule of thumb is six or seven sheets of gelatin (1 to 1½ tablespoon of powdered) to one quart of liquid for a gelee that is sliceable, yet will melt in your mouth without feeling like it can bounce off of the wall.
Seared Atlantic Salmon with Gremolada Gelee
Finally, once we have completed our cooking methods, we are ready to start the plating process. The element of balance is key to any plate, no matter what the shape or size. The first concern is the size and balance of the food versus the plate.
This is a diagram that is used in photography school. A viewer's eyes are directly drawn to two points on the picture, both points A and B, which are the two points where the diagonal of the given object is intersected by a right angled line coming from the opposite corners. The purpose of this diagram is to get the future photographers to make sure that both of these points are balanced, either by filling them with an image, or by having an equal amount of blank space between them and the image that is the focus of the picture. The same principles apply to food, as the food is the focus of the picture, or in our case, the plate. This theory is harder to explain with round plates, as there are no diagonals with round objects. The best way to do this would be to draw an even box around the round or oval plate, and find the diagonals of the box, and henceforth, the round or oval plate.
"Emeril-itis" is everywhere, and it is a common problem that you see in people just starting to present food. By Emeril-itis I mean that everyone wants to "bam" spices or blends on the rims of the plates, or they want to strip chocolate sauce across a plate and up on the rim. When plating, it is imperative that you leave what is referred to as dead space. This is the area on the rim that you want to leave clean. Otherwise, you are likely to end up with a hand that is covered with essence, chocolate, cocoa, or powdered sugar, and you have probably left a thumbprint on the plate that would only be appropriate if dong a Christmas dinner party for the FBI Fingerprint Division.
I love large plates, and I love center-of-the-plate plating. While I am not putting two items in the two focus areas of the "picture," I am, however, centering my main object in between the two of them, creating an even space.
I am also a big fan of making deconstructed plates. Rather than placing all ingredients in close proximity to one another, I like the idea behind having all of the ingredients in separate piles, each acting as their own little tasting, to be enjoyed on their own, completing a master plan. In the picture below, I have made a dish consisting of white bean puree, caramelized salsify, poached shallots, artichoke confit, and a rosé wine gastrique. When my teaching partner and I came up with this dish, we decided that all of the ingredients came together beautifully, but we could not come up with a plating we were happy with. Then I decided to take a deconstructed route, and we thought that it seemed to work very nicely (keep in mind that it is not the easiest thing for first year students to plate this dish, as mundane as it might look to you or me. We later added chive to the bean puree to add color, contrast, and flavor, as well as darkened the gastrique. The china was not my personal or first choice either.) Note the presence of that dead space around the rim.
As with the plate above, it is also important to make sure that you vary the shapes and cuts, as much as you can. We turned a round vegetable into a square (the salsify, which was poached and sautéed, then stacked it into a square like Lincoln Logs), and it matches nicely with the other shapes on the plate (Duck: oblong, Shallot: round, Artichoke: tall pyramid, Bean Puree: tadpole).
A common problem among beginning cooks and creators is that when plating, their dishes tend to become what is referred to as a bull's-eye plate. This is a dish that is served on a round plate, with a cordon of sauce (a round collar), on a round blob of starch, with round vegetables, and round protein.
This can be combated by making controlled knife cuts on items that you can manipulate, such as carrots, potatoes, zucchini, etc. You would not want to cut a protein because the consumer identifies a lot of proteins by their shape (i.e. Ribeye, Strip Loin, Filet, etc.)
You will notice that I have not added anything to the duck plate pictured above as a "garnish." I have not crossed any chives, tossed any whole herb leaves, or added any rosemary twigs to the plate. The ever-present lemon wedge is not on the plate either. That is because when those things are added to a plate, they have no function, other than the way they look. I employ strictly functional garnish, which is a garnish that somehow ties into a dish. This can be any garnish that might also be included somewhere in the dish (Fuji Apple and Cinnamon Sorbet with a Cinnamon Tuille cookie), or it can have some other function on the plate (as a salad, for example).
I find that micro-greens are awesome for this purpose, because they come in so many different varieties and colors. While micro-greens might not be as readily available for the home cook, they are more available in specialty shops and stores. From micro-chives to micro-arugula, micro-beet greens to micro cilantro, you can add your color, complimenting flavors, and texture to a dish and the guest will eat it, eliminating the $3.00 expense for a bunch of rosemary sprigs that are going to be picked out of your scoop of mashed potatoes and thrown away.
I also love how micro-greens add a certain randomness to a dish. Not everything on a plate has to be 100% cut and dry, precision cut, in a ring mold, or quenelled. There is a huge difference between randomness and a mess on the plate, but I feel it is important to combat that cookie-cutter look by breaking it up a little bit. The picture below is an appetizer of Tuna Niçoise Salad, again, a simple plate for the students to plate. You will see how the salad is in the center, adding randomness, height, color and contributing flavor. The components come together, taste great, and look good.
Seared Tuna Nicoise Salad with Quail Eggs, Grape Tomatoes,
Micro Salad with Shallot-Red Wine Vinaigrette
I also like to simple knife cuts as a functional garnish, as talked about above. A dish always seems sexier when you know that someone has taken the time to put really nice knife cuts into it. Below this is demonstrated in a dish of Mosaic Vegetable Terrine with Haricot Vert, Black Truffle, and Truffle Dressing. Note the knife cuts on the green vegetable at the bottom that seems out of place. It is a leek that shifted during the pressing of the terrine.
Finally, I want to mention a modern method of handling ingredients that will have a significant impact on a plate; foams. Foams can be created in a few different ways, but almost all are smooth, and most often aerated with a nitrous-oxide powered frother (ISI is the best known brand). You may have seen them at your local ice cream shop for whipped cream or such. You infuse a liquid with a flavor, or make a completely smooth puree that is stabilized with gelatin or reduced cream, put it in the container, charge with gas, and you have your foam. Another way is to have a liquid that is closer to a broth consistency, add coddled or pasteurized egg yolks, and then froth with a hand blender. An even better method, in my opinion, is to have your liquid slightly warm, no matter what consistency, as well as a small pot of whole milk that has been warmed slightly with some gelatin in it. You froth the pot of milk with a hand blender, and scrape the foam off of the top, incorporating in a separate cup with the warmed flavorful liquid.
The reason that I like foams in some cases is because they are a sauce, or at least a sauce consistency, that has tiny little bubbles, hundreds of thousands of them, and again, you add randomness. You spoon a foam around the plate, and you have added a round element to a plate, in an area where a flat sauce might have looked okay, but where a foam intoxicates. I do not particularly enjoy eating or using thick foams, which you almost have to chew to eat (think pudding consistency). When you use a foam, be careful that you do not put too much on your plate, and make sure that you test it on a plate before putting it on your guests' plates, as foams will sometimes fall, leaving you with an un-sexy puddle of liquid.
Hand-Made Scallion Tortellini with Laurel Leaf Foam
The first two pieces of equipment that I would like to cover are the spoon and the ladle. There is no doubt that ladles have their uses in the kitchen. They are great for moving large amounts of liquids from one place to another, skimming stocks, and helping press liquids through a chinoise. My problem with ladles concerns trying to plate sauces with them. Now, if you are employing the pool method or the drizzle-over-the-top method, then a ladle would do a bang-up job. But if you are trying to control where the sauce goes, very carefully, which is the case with most fine dining, a spoon is the better choice. It does not have to be a silver spoon; in fact, Daniel Boulud often writes about his disdain for silver in the kitchen to spoon ingredients onto a dish.
In the past few years, I have become a spoon fiend, borrowing beloved spoons from Starbucks, my mother, and home. This may sound funny, but a good spoon is important, and there are not a ton out there. A spoon can be used for a hundred different things in the kitchen, from turning things in a sauté pan, to tasting a sauce, to moving a cover on a pan that needs to be nudged. At Le Manoir in England, we were required to have three things everyday: a clean uniform, our knife kits, and ten spoons. The spoons were considered to be gold, and there were many fights between the cooks regarding spoon theft. When I see a spoon that has a good bowl depth, good curvature in the bowl, nice weight, and a good handle, I want it. The Nigella Lawson measuring spoons are awesome; I bought two sets, as their bowls are perfectly shaped for quenelleing ice cream or foie gras parfait.
When using a spoon, most people instinctively grab it on the end, as if they are about to eat with it. When you grab a spoon to sauce with it, you should grab it near the crook of the neck, down by the bowl, and hold it as if you are holding a pencil. This will allow for more precision and better control of where you are placing your sauce. Also keep in mind that you will probably only need half of the amount of product that you would think, in order to make the design that you want. Again, the adage that less is more holds true.
Correct Grip on Spoon when Saucing
Incorrect Grips on Spoon when Saucing
Another great tool used in the kitchen to plate and serve food is the fish spatula. These tools are useful in a thousand ways, and I will never again be without one. They are great for stirring something really quickly, scraping clean a hot cast-iron pan, or delicately lifting a piece of poached fish from its liquid. Usually thin and somewhat flexible, they prove to be invaluable, especially when trying to pry delicately seared scallops off of the bottom of a pan, when the use of tongs would press the seawater brine from them. I have used them to help release a mille feuille of potato that has been baked in a hotel pan, and they have worked perfectly. A worthy investment to be sure.
Squeeze bottles are also a valuable investment in the kitchen. You can do a thousand things with them, and they are worthy of a whole eGullet forum thread on their uses. I prefer to use the Boston round bottles, which are easier to clean, and usually have both more threads for the tips, and finer tips, both useful tools when working with delicate oils or sauces that need to be placed in just the right spot in your presentations. They are very easy to work with, usually come with airtight caps, and can be purchased form several online sites.
Plates and Presentation Platters
Thinking about these chefs and their work brings me to my next section, all about plates, and how they affect your presentation. If you look at the work of all four of these chefs, you will find that their food is plated on several different types of china. When I staged at Trotters in the Fall of 2003, he must have had two hundred different styles of plates in his kitchen, and the other cooks told me he had probably triple that down in the basement of the restaurant. The point here is not to demonstrate how Charlie Trotter is the plate king of Chicago, but rather to demonstrate the fact that he is a chef who believes that it is essential to present his art on as many different canvases as possible. I am one who agrees with him.
The current china trend makes use of pure white china. This presents the chef with a completely clean canvas that will make all of his sauces brighter, richer, and more focused. It will make the grill marks stand out on his protein, the sear on his steak seem that much crustier and perfectly executed. When bone colored china is used, I find that it brings a dinginess to the food that makes it appear less clear and concise. It is almost like being at a concert . . . outside of the concert hall. Yeah, you still hear the music and get the idea, but it is no way comparable to the experience of being inside, in the front row. You want to let your food be the main player at a dinner, and if your food looks dingy, then that is a problem.
Colored plates are also hard to work with. I find that, again, the food is not visually enhanced, as it has to vie for attention with the color of the plate, which may or may not even be in the same color palette as the food being plated. Black is the only exception to this, but I still do not like to use black that often, as it seems to take away some of the brightness away, especially if the food is darker to begin with and caramelization is a focus. Patterned china is forbidden in my house and in my work. I refuse to work with it, and even cringed slightly this last Christmas when my mother made me plate the ribeye that I roasted perfectly on my late great-grandmother's patterned china at dinner (I know, I am a scumbag; I loved my great-grandmother, but I wish she had better taste in china!). Imagine my distress when I was the opening chef of a nightclub in Providence, and the owner proudly proclaimed to me that he had ordered custom china -- gray and maroon, the worst possible combination for a plate that was intended for food. Once again, great guy, bad china selection.
The one thing that the gentleman did do correctly was to order square plates. I really like square plates; I feel that they add another geometrical shape to the dish, and as I mentioned earlier, I especially like to plate round things on the square plates. It is easier to balance a dish, create flow, and if it is white, mimic a canvas if the plate ware is either square or rectangle. That is not to say that there are not any other cool shapes out there. A common shape recently has been the leaf shaped plate, and I find that this fits well with certain applications.
In the past few years, another trend that has been popping up is that of multiple pieces of china on one dish. Sometimes this is just for looks, to create that bulls-eye look with the china, and sometimes it is functional, so that you can present food in different forms and textures at one time.
Seared Sea Bass with Fennel Carpaccio and Corn Salad,
Carrot and Fennel Veloute with Mascarpone Cappuccino,
Sea Scallops with Brunoise Fennel and Radish
In this dish, I was doing a fennel tasting, and I wanted to serve a little cup of the carrot and fennel veloute, and this little butter dish was exactly what I needed. This would come to the table covered, and when uncovered, you would find enough soup for about three bites, just enough to get the idea of what I was trying to do. The addition of the little plate on the bigger plate not only looks nice, but also functions as a receptacle for the soup.
The final elements that will enhance your food presentations are some things you might not think of, but they are an essential part of making food look good: your imagination and brain. These need to be focused if you expect your food to look focused; if they are sloppy and distracted, your food will look sloppy and distracted.
Your imagination and brain need to be fed new ideas as often as possible as well. My father swears that my downfall and ticket to the poorhouse is going to be my addiction to buying cookbooks. He wonders aloud to me all the time why my $60,000 college tuition wasn't enough to teach me how to cook and give me enough ideas about food to last a lifetime. He is right, in a sense -- I do know how to cook, and I feel as though I have a pretty firm grasp on flavor combinations and profiles, both current and classic. The truth of the matter is that when I need to be inspired or when I am feeling downtrodden by this awfully hard business, it is always nice to see someone else's work, and I am inspired constantly by others' works. I do not buy cookbooks that contain only recipes but rather, I buy the books that have pretty pictures. I have gotten some of my best ideas from these books -- never copying exactly, but taking a component of one plating by one chef, and mixing it with another component of another. Sometimes I come up with something new all on my own by playing around with their ideas. This is all about visuals, and how to make your food more visually appealing, so it is not that silly to think that one should be inspired by those that do it perfectly, is it? My favorites are Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Charlie Palmer (he's crazy, and has come up with some of the most interesting and cool stuff), and Rick Tramonto.
Well, here we are, coming near to the end of the course. "What? You haven't taught me how to plate food in order to make it look nice," you might be saying. Well, I guess you're right, in a sense. I have not laid out exactly how to compose a plate blueprint so that it is guaranteed to look beautiful. Plating is a highly personal thing. I hope I have taught you about what to look for when plating and cooking your food, and mistakes to look out for. I have told you what to do once your food has been cooked perfectly, and even how to handle the ingredients when there is no cooking involved. The bottom line is to handle your ingredients correctly, let them shine. They are the stars of your dinner party, the culmination of all of your hard work and planning (no matter whether it is a dinner on a Tuesday night after a long day of work, or a meal for friends on the weekend), and a showcase of your skills.
My evolution as a chef has gone into reverse, the opposite of the supposed human evolution. When I graduated from culinary school, I was making all kinds of abstract dishes, trying to come up with crazy presentations of crazy food, trying to focus more on how to "wow" the guest with the presentation and shock factor. I have since learned that you need to let the food speak for itself.
For some of us, the food we create is our signature; for others, our hobby; and even to some, our careers and personal expressions. Do not be afraid to mess up, or you will end up not even trying. Best of luck with your future cooking, and I hope that you have many successes, but keep in mind, your failures and shortcomings are most often the source of your improvement.
Some of the More Successful Platings
Seared Sea Bass with Fennel Carpaccio and Corn Salad
Seared Salmon with Split-Fresh English Peas, Mustard Jus
New England Littleneck Clams with Three Sauces
Crispy Sweetbread Ravioli with Black Trumpet Mushroom
Seven-Heirloom-Tomato Salad with Boucheron Mousse,
25-Year Balsamic, Summertime Garden Essence
Click here for the course Q&A.