An expert shares secrets to mastering the art of presentation
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COX
When I first started cooking professionally at a small neighborhood bistro back in 1998, one of our signature dishes was Southwest Chicken—a butterflied chicken breast filled with Boursin cheese then wrapped in filo dough. The chicken was baked until the pastry was golden brown, then cut in half on the bias and set on top of a hearty pile of garlic mashed potatoes before being finished with a roasted bell pepper coulis and crowned with a spear of rosemary. Back then we aspired to be like Dean Fearing from the Mansion on Turtle Creek, with his colorful zigzags of sauces from a squeeze bottle and curls of shaved green onions and red bell pepper.
By the time I was attending culinary school in the early 2000s, Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook was inspiring a generation of chefs. Microgreens and tiny vegetables were sprouting up on menus around the country and chefs were carefully dotting plates with vibrant herb oils and pinches of sea salt. By this time, rosemary spears, unless they were being lit on fire by Grant Achatz, had largely been replaced with more delicate and edible garnishes.
In 2001, as I worked my way up through the ranks of the Sierra Mar kitchen, food was also reaching new heights, with chefs around the country sending out precariously stacked ingredients barely stable enough to make it to the dining room. This was the era of the ring mold, and cooks would jealously guard their lengths of PVC pipes and metal rings. Everything came crashing down in 2002 when Michel Bras’ Essential Cuisine hit bookshelves. The cover photo of his gargouillou showcasing tiny vegetables and herbs displayed dramatically across an expansive white background totally changed the way fine-dining chefs visualized plating. Chefs around the country took note and deconstructed their towers, spreading them across the largest white plates they could get their hands on.
The difference between a quality home-cooked meal and an expensive fine-dining dinner often boils down to the final 20% of the process.
In 2007, El Bulli burst into the American culinary mainstream and chefs were quick to adopt an array of gels, spheres, foams and airs into their arsenals. Like culinary magicians armed with the newest hydrocolloids, chefs would turn formerly mundane ingredients into unrecognizable works of art.
The Noma cookbook, released in 2010, brought us into a period of monochromatic austerity during which chefs celebrated dishes with subdued tones that camouflaged them against the earthenware, stones and other natural elements on which they were served. Overnight, menus from Miami to New York suddenly reflected the somber darkness of a winter in Copenhagen.
The same year the Noma cookbook was published, a little known social media platform called Instagram hit the App Store. While the Nordic aesthetic continued to gain popularity, some media-savvy chefs realized they were better served by a more flamboyant strategy. Just like peacocks in mating season, they covered their Instagram posts with splashes of dramatic sauces across stark white or black backgrounds. Ranging from squid-ink black to fluorescent green and magenta purple, these sauces can look almost unnatural at times. But the more gaudy and colorful, the more they stand out in an oversaturated stream of images. When it comes to posting food pictures, modern chefs are sometimes compelled to sacrifice flavor for aesthetics if it means gaining a valuable social media following.
PLATING AT HOME
The difference between a quality home-cooked meal and an expensive fine-dining dinner often boils down to the final 20% of the process, the presentation of the dish.
To demonstrate this concept I took a classic recipe for Trout Almandine and made three variations. The first dish is simple—a piece of pan-roasted steelhead trout in a large white bowl topped with a generous portion of green beans, tomatoes, toasted almonds and brown butter. The presentation is clean and to the point, no superfluous garnish, just simple ingredients neatly presented with plenty of negative space. For the second round of plating I added a few fresh basil leaves and chive blossoms to the dish. These aromatic leaves add both freshness and vibrancy to the plate, simultaneously boosting the flavor and visual appeal. If I were cooking this dish at home, this is likely the version I would prepare.
Last, I wanted to create an over-the-top version of the dish, using the same ingredients but constructing them in a way that would make people stop and take notice. This presentation would be outside the scope of all but the most expensive restaurants, requiring someone with a steady hand to apply each almond “scale” one by one. Luckily for the home cook, if you have a few extra minutes for an over-the-top presentation, the scale effect is remarkably easy to achieve. (See below.)
CHOOSING THE GARNISH
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that you should never select garnishes simply for the sake of aesthetics. Garnishes should always enhance the overall dish. For example, a properly placed nasturtium flower will add both a burst of color and a spicy punch.
Vivid chive oil will add both finesse and flavor to the plate. Curls of bell pepper will provide body and color to a dish while at the same time lending a crisp texture and refreshing flavor. A simple burst of color is not enough for a garnish. It must work with the other ingredients to elevate both the taste and presentation. This is why I would discourage adding something like an edible orchid, which only serves to elevate the visual presentation.
HERE ARE A FEW EXAMPLES OF CLASSIC GARNISHES:
Grilled Steak with Green Beans and Mashed Potatoes – Consider a slice of red onion that you set inside a cast iron pan over high heat until it is blackened on one side but still crisp and sharp. These high-contrast red and black rings would complement both the flavor and presentation of the steak.
Shrimp Cocktail – Think about a few thin slices of heirloom cherry tomatoes or some fresh cilantro blossoms or young basil leaves. A couple of perfect lemon wedges, a sprinkle of finely chopped parsley or a bright red dash of Espelette pepper are especially classic but will enhance taste as well as presentation. Sweet Pea Risotto – How about some thinly shaved baby carrots soaked in ice water until they get crisp and curl then tossed with fresh lemon juice and olive oil? Perhaps a few fresh tarragon leaves and some microplaned Parmesan cheese?
MORE TIPS FOR HOME COOKS
Choose your plate wisely – Nothing will help your presentation more than the right set of plates. Generally I like to use large plates with a solid surface area (9–10 inches for appetizers and 11–12 inches for entrées). Typically you want to select a plate that offers a contrast to the food being presented. Black or white plates are usually a safe bet, but depending on the dish, any number of colors and glazes can bring out the best in your food.
When you think about the size of a plate, remember that the wider the rim, the less actual plating area. If you are going to be using herb oils or any other translucent sauces, keep in mind that these will show up best on a light background. Conversely, a light-colored hollandaise or white sauce like crème fraîche will show up best on a black background.
Also keep in mind that plates are a bridge between your tablescape and the food you are presenting, so they must complement both the food and the surroundings. For a truly unique and personalized option, consider getting custom plates that reflect your personal aesthetic and cooking style. In Monterey we are lucky to have both Bonnie Hotz and Shelby Hawthorne, two incredibly talented artists who handcraft a wide variety of gallery- worthy plates. And in the Craftbar of the Watsonville studio of Annieglass, renowned local glass artist Ann Morhauser offers the opportunity to have a glass of wine or craft beer and make your own glass plates with her or cups and vases with Good Life Ceramics.
That perfectly placed chive blossom should look as though it fell naturally.
It’s OK to be negative – Now that you have chosen the right size of plate, don’t crowd it! Just like any work of art, you want to leave plenty of negative (open) space to lead the viewer’s eyes toward the focal point. To avoid smudges and smears, you can use a clean towel with a touch of high-proof alcohol or vinegar to wipe the rim of the plate and empty plating area.
Keep it natural – The last thing you want is for your dishes to look too manipulated or contrived. That perfectly placed chive blossom should look as though it fell naturally, and that thoughtfully pooled sauce should seem as though it were casually spooned onto the plate. You want the ingredients to speak for themselves and not be overshadowed by superfluous presentation. Classic Japanese cuisine is a perfect example of how keeping food natural and beautiful can often be the highest form of cooking.
Don’t throw away the best part – Often cooks discard perfectly good garnishes. Think about saving the small yellow leaves from the center of a head of celery or the young fennel fronds that sprout from the middle of the bulb. Consider finely chopping the bright red stems of Swiss chard and sautéing or pickling them. Reduce the cooking water from a pot of black beans into an inky sauce for the plate.
Find a focal point – Many times when I plate a dish I will look for one or two elements that will stand out on the plate. For example, when making a salad, I often set aside a couple of particularly striking lettuce leaves and place them on the salad last. I might cut an heirloom bean in half lengthwise to showcase the contrast in color. These little touches, which often go unnoticed by guests, can subtly elevate a dish.
Have the right tools – Essential tools for plating like a pro are: a small offset spatula, tweezers, plating spoons, microplane, herb snips, peeler, mandoline slicer.
Don’t distract from the food – Just like keeping negative space when you plate a dish, remember that you don’t want your dining table to feel cluttered or overly ornate. Often a large floral centerpiece and other over-the-top decor can look great when the table is first set but detract from both the food and communal dining experience once the dinner begins. (For more on setting the table, see p. 33.)
Tell the story – Presentation isn’t just about aesthetics. It’s about the overall way you present a dish to your guests. Never underestimate the influence a diner’s mind has on perception of quality and enjoyment. Just like taking a few extra moments to soak in a Picasso hanging on a museum wall, your guests will have a greater appreciation for food that comes with a story. Was this a favorite recipe from your childhood? Did you drive an hour to buy the lamb from a small family farm? Are the lemons from your backyard tree? Each of these stories will add richness to your culinary narrative.
Study others – Start following your favorite local chefs on Instagram; for a more international perspective, check out: @theartofplating and @cityfoodsters.
SETTING THE TABLE
Tips from Hanni Liliedahl, owner of Lilify artisan shop in Monterey
Sitting down to a beautiful meal with dear friends and family is one of life’s delights. Whether it is a holiday, commemorative occasion or backyard gathering, setting the table is a wonderful way to heighten the festivities and honor the food. The ideal tablescape allows each guest to be engaged and yet comfortable.
- Consider a theme or limited color palette to direct the aesthetic of the evening. I often allow the season to offer influence. Vibrant summer colors can really explode—think corals, magentas and bright yellows arranged wildly in baskets or terra cotta pots, while autumn evokes a coziness that can be captured by deep purples and burnt oranges with brass accents. Winter may welcome warmer materials; think heavy fibers and hearty ceramics.
- The composition of a successful tablescape should be inventive, but most importantly functional. If you’re concerned that the decor will clutter the dining experience, opt for a more minimalist approach. Sometimes subtle touches, like cucumber and mint in each water glass, a small sprig of rosemary atop each napkin or seasonal produce like figs and persimmons clustered in the center, are not only sufficient but optimal.
- A tablecloth surely secures the elegance of the affair. However, if the raw table is attractive, consider using a runner or placemats instead. I love to create custom chargers by tracing a large bowl and cutting each circle out of specialty paper. Ribbons, spaced equally to give the appearance of extending the length of the table, are a clever runner. Simply laying cut branches, like olive or magnolia, down the length of a table can serve as a pristine and sophisticated stand-in for a runner.
- For centerpieces, be guided by the rule of three—groupings that create harmony. Combinations of seasonal flowers and herbs are so stunning. Try using unique, unexpected vessels like vintage pots to hold stems—just ensure ahead of time that they are watertight. Also note that blooms such as lilies and gardenia and herbs like lemon verbena as well as cinnamon broom have a signature aroma that can likely overpower a meal or adversely influence the palate.
- Candles are a go-to for creating a specific atmosphere. Confirm that they are unscented and especially if your fête is outdoors, pre light wicks so that the candles burn down a bit and won’t damper with a breeze.
- Have a good time. Hosting a meal is both joyful, and admittedly stressful, but the most important ingredient to entertaining is to also enjoy the endeavor. Creating your tablescape in advance grants you the ability, on the day of, to focus on the food, attend to your guests and, most importantly, have fun.
The former executive chef at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar, John Cox is now pursuing a number of projects, including serving as a partner and consulting chef at Cultura–comida y bebida in Carmel and chef-partner at The Bear and Star at the Fess Parker Ranch in Los Olivos. For more, go to www.chefjohncox.com or follow him on Instagram and Facebook.