You know the scene: Order dinner at a restaurant and on the plate is a sprig of parsley or a slice of citrus or some other nondescript piece of something presumably edible.
That's garnish, meant to enhance the meal and serve as something attractive. Often, though, the diner shoves it aside. That's after the thought behind it got shoved aside by the chef or whoever plated the meal.
Garnish in French means "to adorn" or "to furnish." As the French have done with most other aspects of cuisine and eating -- e.g., 100 or more ways to cook an egg -- they have attempted to standardize garnish preparation and presentation. A 1914 handbook to assist chefs and cooks lists 209 items in the garnish section, according to Wayne Gisslen in "Professional Cooking," the key textbook we use in culinary school.
In our current class, Culinary Foundations III, we get a point on a plated meal for a thought-out and appropriate garnish, and we lose a point if the garnish is inappropriate or nonexistent. Chef has taught us that the garnish can be an offshoot of some aspect of the dish and overall should complement the dish, including adding color where needed.
For Wednesday's all-important final competency exam, garnish will be a factor.
For my chicken dish, I will use a couple of small mushroom caps as garnish, and if I have time, I will carve a small design into them. If not, I likely will go with a sliced and fanned mushroom cap on the plate. The mushroom will be appropriate because it will be part of the sauce I plan to make.
For the grilled New York steak, I plan to thick slice a roma tomato and grill it for a few moments to provide some texture and color on what otherwise will be a pretty neutrally colored plate.
Seems like lots of attention, but every point counts. More important, the plate must look good and be appetizing. My garnishes are intended to achieve those ends.