Chefs share their secrets for creating edible works of art.
By Ashley Ryan
While taste remains the most important factor of any meal, emerging trends have placed plate design at the forefront as well, inspiring culinary masters and amateurs alike to bring art into the kitchen in new ways. Chefs across the country envision their dishes ahead of time, treating the plate as their canvas and carefully considering everything from the way the ingredients are arranged to their colors and textures. This emphasis on the design of food has created a whole new type of epicurean creativity to master, presenting new challenges and expectations.
According to Executive Chef Thomas McKinney-Stehr of Innisbrook Resort in Florida, plating has changed drastically over the last decade. “Diners want a plate to challenge their palate in new ways,” he says. “People have always enjoyed the aspect of a beautiful plate. Now dining is almost philosophical and poetic, from ethnic street fare to traditional contemporary. Combining new flavors and textures, along with the way it translates to a guest’s palate, is what a chef lives for.”
While creating picturesque dishes isn’t always as easy as it seems, these tips will help you mimic the professional plating techniques used by master chefs in your own kitchen.
Picking Your Palette
Color plays a multipurpose role in plating. While it adds to the visual presentation, it also helps draw the eye to specific ingredients and provides flavor cues.
“The first impression a diner has of a dish is what they see, so color is very important,” says Chef Herve Malivert, director of culinary technology and culinary coordinator at the International Culinary Center, an award-winning cooking school.
Colors and emotions have strong ties, so consider finding a palette that blends with the season. Winter is ideal for deep, rich shades, while summer is the perfect time to add vibrant hues. Using contrasting colors can also make the dish more interesting.
But it is possible to go too far. “It is important to have a good color scheme in a dish,” McKinney-Stehr says. “However, the colors should have a flow in order to draw the diner into the concept of the dish. In many cases, bold colors are being used sporadically on plates that draw attention away, resulting in a plate that looks confused or poorly composed.”
Chef Michael Ha of Reunion Resort in Florida says that even the hue of the plate can play a role in design. Ha typically chooses to use white dishware to make the color of his sushi, as well as side ingredients such as ginger and wasabi, come alive. “Color is the most important part in plating,” Ha says. “It makes you want to take a picture because the colors alone make the sushi look and taste that much better.”
He says that the Grand Reunion Roll on the menu at Reunion’s Grande Lobby Sushi Bar is a classic, combining white rice with golden shrimp tempura, pink steamed shrimp and ivory-colored “Ha” sauce, his own special blend, plus a sprinkle of golden sesame seeds on top. “It sounds like a lot of different colors, but when it is being incorporated on a white plate being topped with a colorful umbrella, it really adds a vibrance to the dish,” he says.
In addition to being crucial to the taste of the meal, different textures also result in a more beautiful dish, as the variety adds visual interest. Whether choosing from creamy, crunchy, smooth or heavily textured ingredients, changing it up is essential.
“Start with the idea that nothing should be the same,” McKinney-Stehr says. “Depending on what you’re working with, try and make each component of the dish contrast itself with texture and complement itself in flavor.”
He uses the seared Atlantic salmon, at Innisbrook’s Market Salamander Grille, paired with red quinoa and roasted carrot mousseline as an example. While the salmon’s bold flavor is balanced by the quinoa, the smooth roasted carrot mousseline also contrasts with the texture of both the fish and grain. Accented with salty fried parsnip ribbons, the dish has that little crunch as well, providing “the perfect balance … beautiful, enticing and flavorful,” McKinney-Stehr says.
Ha also utilizes accents for an additional crunch. While sushi already has the prominent consistency of the rice, garnishes are a great way to add to the plate’s overall texture. Ha often uses daikon, a type of radish, for an additional light bite. “Sometimes we will add a cucumber flower placed on top to add a little more texture to the daikon,” he says. “Cucumber is very light, but smooth.”
In addition to daikon and cucumber, Ha says that wasabi, soy sauce and sesame seeds are other garnishes that can easily top dishes to alter the plate’s texture. “Each individual item has its own unique texture, flavor and look to it that it sets the plate up for success each time when being served.”
Determining the Ingredients
The ingredients easily serve as the heart of each and every meal. While they dictate a dish’s flavor, they are also an important aspect in plate design. Chefs must determine which to use and which to highlight, the portion sizes, their placement and more. According to Ha, organic and raw ingredients are incredibly important right now. “People want wholesome foods and want to be able to feel and taste that in the dishes,” he says. Using fresh ingredients gives you the opportunity to present the highest quality versions of every component while also making healthier meals.
According to McKinney-Stehr, the diverse restaurants at Innisbrook strive to push the envelope when it comes to food development in an effort to provide guests with an experience they won’t soon forget.
“From a chef’s standpoint, it is always important to consider what the item is that you are showcasing,” he says. “Whether it is a protein or a vegetable, you want that item to be dominant in some way on the plate. We are always challenging our young chefs to create the right dish with new and exciting techniques that will showcase our products and innovation. Currently we are conceptualizing plated options with pickled and fermented foods [as well as] local, sustainable items [like] beef, pork, poultry, seafood and vegetables.”
Malivert adds that garnishes like microgreens and edible flowers are popular. They serve as a way to add something a little more unique to each dish, as well as a touch of added texture and eye-catching color.
Shaping the Presentation
Color, texture and ingredients are all important aspects of artful plating, but it’s dimension and placement that bring everything together—and offer diners direction as far as how to enjoy the meal. “For me, shape and symmetry are the key to good design,” Malivert says.
Ha notes that not every inch of the plate should be covered, as negative space can be an important component to enhance presentation.
McKinney-Stehr says that layering is another key factor in plating. “There is always a need to have something that draws you into the chef’s conception of the dish—something that you think about while dining.”
When plating maki or sashimi, Ha says he often utilizes layering techniques, organizing the sushi into curves or a stairway—one piece after the other, laid at an angle. “Sushi isn’t meant to be eaten in two bites because that takes away from all of the flavors and textures coming together to be whole,” he says, adding that layering makes it easier to pick up each piece—especially with chopsticks—without them sticking together.
After all, in addition to enticing the eyes as well as the stomach, the goal of artful plating is to enhance the overall dining experience.
“From the guest perspective, seeing a beautiful plate with different techniques piled on each dish will show them that love has been put in each and every dish and make it that much more enjoyable,” Ha says.
(Top photo: Atlantic salmon at Innisbrook Resort’s Market Salamander Grille | Photo by Corey Conroy Photography)
Learn directly from the engaging, professional chefs at Harrimans Virginia Piedmont Grill’s Cooking Studio, which is located in Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Virginia.
The Cooking Studio offers a variety of exciting opportunities for foodies. It provides a glimpse into the restaurant’s kitchen as well as plenty of interactive experiences. While guests can watch Salamander’s chefs—and sometimes chefs from outside the resort—craft meals in the kitchen, they can also use the space for a private dinner party, viewing and participating in the process as chefs design beautifully plated meals for the entire group.
The Cooking Studio also offers numerous cooking classes for both adults and children. Each lesson concludes with the chef imparting advice about the best plating and design techniques used in the Harrimans kitchen.