Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Chef as artist; plate as canvas

Well cooked is the key concept. Well presented follows closely behind.

"Pay attention to the plate. The plate is your gift to the customer," Chef Dan Fluharty said in introducing the topic of plating and presentation on Tuesday in Culinary Foundations III.

"That plate is your universe; nothing else matters," Chef Tony Marano told us in Culinary Foundations I in October.

How the food looks on the plate could be a career in and of itself. In fact, people known as "food stylists" have done just that.

We were already pulled in to plating and presentation last term, out of necessity as we presented our cooking to Chef Dan for his assessment and grading. Chef paid minimal attention to how our food looked on the plate, other than pointing out if it was sloppy, the plate was not clean in the sense of sauce spills and if it was jammed with too much food.

Now, as we get closer to that moment when we will work in restaurants and be responsible for appearance along with good cooking, we are looking at the principles and elements of art, composition and how food plating has evolved over the last half-century.

The basic principles of composition include keeping it simple; the rule of odds, in which an odd number of items (potatoes, for example) is better than an even number; create a focal point or center of interest; purposefully seek an off-center presentation to create interest.

Chef Dan reviewed three generations of food plating:

* Old School: Three distinct servings of food on a plate, separated from one another. Think TV dinner.

* Retro: Starch and protein together, with veggie as decoration and sauce drizzled along the edge.

* Contemporary: Smaller portions overall (6 ounces of protein, for starters) with one aspect placed in relation to another, including on top. Sauces often used as pointer arrows to draw attention to the centerpiece, the protein.

Chef told us that for our purposes, a basic clean plate will suffice, with some height, emphasis on the protein and balance.

Good cooking and plating are works of art, and we are learning to be the artists for our families, friends and customers in restaurants.

Or, as Chef has suggested, be your own artist by going to Hometown Buffet.


  1. Mike, here's a question: When you are plating, does it take the same kind of visual intelligence as it does, say, to design a page (or anything else)? What if that is not a strong suit? Can you still plate successfully (if not originally)?

  2. Catharine,
    Thanks for the question.
    Having what I once heard called "visual literacy" is important in plating, because it is composing often disparate elements into an attractive whole. Similar to the newspaper page design.
    Different from the newspaper page design is that the designer of the plate often has some control in advance over the elements that will be included and thus can plan to make them complementary.
    And, yes, if one does not have a lot o "visual literacy," one can still plate successfully. The key would be to keep it simple. Look for something to give a little height, and make certain that it has a variety of colors and textures.