by Tina Miller
Instagram launched six years ago, forever changing how we look at food. A server delivers blueberry ricotta pancakes with two fat succulent sausage links and butter that is melting just so. With no time to waste, you grab your smartphone, hold it over your plate, and…Bam! The ultimate pancake photo. You are now sharing your breakfast and location, complete with hashtags (maybe #pancakes or #bestbreakfast). Soon, your photo will be liked by friends, family and people you haven’t seen since high school.
Foodies, chefs and bloggers all post photos. These days perfectly plated dishes are as ubiquitous online as photos of kittens and new babies. You might wonder why some meals look like works of art, while yours just look like work. What goes into crafting the perfect plate?
I remember my grandmother (who, as it turns out, did not really enjoy cooking) once told me: “You always needed to have a red, a white, and a green on your plate”—meaning a protein, a starch, and a vegetable. Think of it like three clumps of food sitting a few inches apart, she suggested, like people sitting an a park bench. Not too close, you don’t really know that broccoli. Though my grandmother loved her family, she was from a different generation when cooking was a duty, not a love. The advice she gave me reflected that.
Instead, the art of plating should lure the diner into a beautiful tableau, where the meal tastes as good as
is looks. Behind the scenes of that breakfast photo, a line cook arranges those ricotta pancakes, by size, the butter askew and sausage to the side. Plating is cooking 101.
After many years working as a chef in restaurants, I now find myself using plating techniques at home when we have guests for dinner. I like the aesthetic of a cohesive plate. I like the portion control, knowing that everyone gets an equal amount of food. I like that the table remains uncluttered. I like that everyone can get down to eating. And yes, I like the wow factor.
When planning a dinner party, first decide who the star of the plate will be.
Next step: choose your plates. Personally I prefer simple white or one-color plates. The food need not compete with the decoration on the plate.
Then, round out your menu. Make choices based on color, texture, and foods that add some dimension.
In many fine-dining restaurants you may notice plates that come to some sort of peak or focal point. There was a trend in the nineties where meals always seemed to be served in some sort of tower. It got kind of silly, high towers of over-handled food. The poor server who had to manage that balancing act…
That said, the food on your plate should move in an upward direction, and flow together. Avoid my grandmother’s three lonely clumps on your plate.
Think about color: a bright flash of asparagus green creeping out from under a browned piece of meat, perhaps.
Then, texture. Maybe some roasted fingerling potatoes.
Next, add your sauce, meat jus or a vegetable smear for the plate. You may lightly top with pea shoots, a shaved cheese or a dollop of creaminess.
Finally, dust a few flecks of bright herbs over the top.
The art of plating is all about balance; the balance of texture, color, and taste. But above all else, have fun, get creative and remember: plating is not a science, it’s an art.