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Issue No.4
Beyond Parsley

Parley sprigs and flakes make a bright, easy accent for many dishes, but they can become boring quickly when overused.

By plating as creatively as possible, you can visually stimulate your diner's appetite and imagination. The most exciting plate presentations arouse interest and a sense of expectancy, then present food that tastes as good or even better than anticipated.

Here are some of the principles to keep in mind as you design plates for presentation:

The Concepts
Plate presentation concepts are the same as those of fine art: the chef-artist works with a palette of different colors, shapes, textures, and flavors, and arranges them with the principles of artistic composition in mind: balance, harmony, and contrast.

And the rules are simple. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the main ingredients remain the focal point. The way you showcase them should never overwhelm, clash with, or obscure them.

Add to these simple concepts an attempt to avoid repetition and trite standbys (such as the ubiquitous parsley), and you'll be able to create attractive, enticing plates every time.

The Tools
The most important, most dramatic tool a chef can use is the plate itself. Wide choices in color, shape, and size offer a multitude of opportunities to create harmony or contrast, or simply serve as a blank canvas that lets the food speak for itself.



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Achieve drama with unusual shapes and sizes: serve a selection of cheeses on a triangular plate or tuna tartare on a large white square. Keep materials in mind: etched glass, clear glass, and even glass bricks are perfect for serving chilled salads, sushi, and other raw items--the glass conveys a cool freshness.

Also consider plate choices as a way to underscore the theme or cuisine of your establishment. Richard Stallings, Dining Room Manager at Aquarella in La Jolla, CA, tells us that his restaurant's charming rustic plates and color-chip embedded glasses are imported from Mexico and enhance the authentic flavor of the upscale Mexican dishes.

Many chefs, including the renowned Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in Yountville, CA, draw from a variety of plates for service. A table might feature a number of different designs, each chosen to complement diners' individual selections.

How you arrange the food on your plates is another aspect of presentation. When serving more than one item, consider Asian design principles--an odd number of items or asymmetrical placement will look more intriguing than a two-by-two or grid-like arrangement.

We've all seen (and practiced!) intricate architectural stacking and towering--a round of polenta, topped with a medallion of beef, layered with a bed of caramelized onions, topped with a vertical sprig of greenery. If restrained, stacking remains an effective and dramatic technique. However, too much can border on the bizarre.

A fresh alternative to stacking might even be the absence of arrangement: simplicity can make a design statement all by itself. We've been impressed by the simple mound of dark green arugula with a light sheen of olive oil casually piled into a small, stark-white soup crock at the Tate Gallery Restaurant in London, England.

Other principles to keep in mind include avoiding portions that are too small in relation to plate size, or portions that are too big, such as the off-putting steak and frites that hang over the side.

The final and perhaps most important presentation tools you have at your disposal are complementary sauces, reductions, coulis, and added ingredients. For example, a pair of colorful, contrasting sauces creatively "painted" or drizzled on the plate will enhance appetizers, main courses, and desserts.

Herbs such as torn basil or sprigs of fresh dill and seasonings such as pepper flakes can accent flavor while adding color contrast. Greenery--curly endive, cress, or pea shoots, for example--and nuts or seeds such as black mustard, cracked coriander, or sunflower also add taste and visual interest.

Artfully carved produce items make excellent garnishes. Two principles to keep in mind: they should be fresh and in season, and serve as an enhancement to the item they're garnishing.

Even the tried-and-true lemon, probably the most common pairing for seafood, can make a dramatic impression if looked at in a different way. For example, the Buckeye Roadhouse in Mill Valley, CA, serves a unique lemon half to accompany its signature Oysters Bingo. A millimeter-thin strip of zest is pared almost all the way around the cut edge of the fruit, and then loosely knotted in the middle, creating a Zen-like presentation.

Check out some of these resources for more ideas on artistic garnishing and plate presentation. You can find them at the StarChefs cookbook shop:

  • The Book of Garnishes by June Budgen
  • Fantastic Food Decorating by Emanuela Caldirola, Sergio Barzetti, and Manuela Caldirola
  • Garnishing: A Feast for Your Eyes by Francis Talyn Lynch
  • Glorious Garnishes: Crafting Easy & Spectacular Food Decorations by Amy Texido
  • Stunning Garnishes by Valerie Ferguson
  • Grand Finales: The Art of the Plated Dessert by Tish Boyle and Timothy Moriarty
  • A Modernist View of Plated Desserts (Grand Finales) by Tish Boyle and Timothy Moriarty
  • Grand Finales: A Neoclassic View of Plated Desserts by Tish Boyle and Timothy Moriarty
  • Culinary Carving and Plate Decoration by Harvey Rosen

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