Of all the many factors to consider when opening a restaurant, the visual aspects are undoubtedly some of the most important. The time, thought and money spent on architects and decorators can, on a good day, reap great benefits in terms of a restaurant’s success. And perfectly adjusted lighting, chic uniforms, beautiful linens and thoughtfully arranged flowers can delight even those not inclined to be delighted. But a deft touch with food presentation will make a powerful impression on your guests with relatively little effort or expense.
In some ways food presentation probably reached its pinnacle in the early nineteenth century with the work of chef Antonin Carême. Depending on one’s opinion of what food should look like, Carême might also be thought of as the chef who took presentation to its most ludicrous extreme. He studied drawings and prints in museums to learn as much as he could about architecture, writing “of the five fine arts, the fifth is architecture, whose main branch is confectionery.” While this might sound like the very subjective view of a somewhat eccentric chef, his larger than life vision and attention to detail served him well in post-revolutionary France. He was extremely popular, probably the first celebrity chef and known as “King of Chefs, and Chef of Kings”. A typical dinner for Carême might have consisted of 10 different, very highly decorated dishes (with two or four of each dish for the sake of symmetry), all laid out on the table as guests arrived. Other dishes would follow. In addition, there would be works such as a harp made of pastry with multi-colored spun sugar strings several feet high on a base of caramel-coated puff pastry in the shape of various medallions and fruits, all draped with laurel wreaths made of green biscuits. And, as if that might not be enough to get people’s attention, he would make a classical Greek temple with Corinthian columns made of pastry decorated with marzipan, surrounded by a mossy grotto with palm trees. The main thing is, his customers really seemed to like it.
Today tastes tend to be more simple. And it’s hard to go wrong when one of your main goals is to give your guests what they want. The renowned chef Auguste Escoffier, who worked a couple of generations after Carême wrote, “..the result that the cook has in mind when executing a fine presentation can only be achieved by the appropriate and sober use of edible ingredients arranged in harmony. We must accept as a strict rule that in future all presentations that include inedible items will be avoided and that a simplicity of good taste will be the outstanding characteristic…The time has gone for those complicated presentations made fashionable by the cooks in the time of the Restoration. However, for a very special occasion, the cook has to comply with the requirements of the old methods and he must, above all, relate the intricate arrangement of the dish to the amount of time and resources at his disposal, never sacrificing the means to the end and not forgetting that the overelaborateness of the decoration cannot make up for the lack of or the weakness of the flavour.” Even Carême said, “In matters of cookery there are not a number of principles, there is only one and that is to satisfy the person you are serving.”
In talking to many chefs about their thoughts and practices of food presentation, the overriding theme was to keep things interesting and beautiful, but not “overworked.” Authenticity is also something on a lot of chef’s minds, as opposed to contrived ideas that might seem more like desperate pleas for attention than attractively displayed examples of good, honest food.
Chef Gary Baca’s food, at Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab in Chicago is a great example of how effective very simple platting can be. His à la carte presentations showcase the quality and consistency of his seafood and steaks, making up for a lack of architecture with the natural beauty of his products. His wild Alaskan halibut, broiled and served bone-in, mimics the look of his steaks. He is also a big fan of doing tableside service to create excitement and interest in the dinning room, making performance art part of his presentation. Examples are bringing out a 26 ounce portion of Alaskan Whole King Crab with all the legs attached, breaking it down tableside, and cutting the top part of the shell off to highlight the impressive character of the product. His staff also fillets Dover sole tableside and often pours sauces from pewter goosenecks. This all makes for a great strategy for presentation but, between the costs of the products and staff, not appropriate for every concept.
John Chiakulas, Corporate Executive Chef of Food Life in Chicago, which consists of 13 different restaurants in a food court setting feels that presentation is second only to taste in importance. His thoughts were confirmed when, after he stopped making sample plates of his daily specials for customers to see, sales of specials dropped 75%. Consequently, he started making them again. He likes to use height on his plates, and uses different levels on his displays to create a “wow” factor. He looks for “cute and clever” ideas to showcase his choices and to make his food look bigger and fresher, and to increase a guest’s perceived value. Examples are his use of baskets, retro divided plates, Bento boxes and serving his boneless Buffalo wings in a ramekin so that they stand upright, the same as the celery garnish on the plate does. He has found small portions to be very popular. He produces a line of “Mighty Minis” consisting of a variety of sliders. Chef Chiakulas says that while the original sliders were mini hamburgers, now they can be any type of mini sandwich. He also does a tasting platter and flights of mini desserts. He gives a lot of consideration to labor costs and feasibility when critiquing a new presentation. “If it can’t be done easily at 7:30 on a Saturday night, I don’t do it at all”. He also likes to feature seasonal items because they inherently look better and cost less.
Chef/Owner Marco Wiles of DaMarco in Houston wants his plates to be clean and uncluttered. He puts most of his energy into perfecting the basics of cooking and then applying those skills to the classic Italian repertoire, without any gratuitous complications. He buys the best ingredients he can find, whether they be his signature whole roasted Branzino, veal or fresh truffles. Then he doesn’t “mess with them” in preparation or presentation. In this way, he allows the food to speak for itself. Everything he puts on his plates must be edible and enhance the dish. He uses simple, but interesting china to frame his symmetrical, balanced presentations. From a rustic potato-rapini soup served at the bottom of a deep, wide-rimmed white bowl, to three perfect quenelles of gelatti on a long, rectangular green glass plate, his food looks very comfortable and inviting, but also very elegant. He likes traditional things and sees no need for “cutting edge” presentation devices such as foams.
Randy Zweiban is Executive Chef/Partner at Nacional 27 in Chicago. He makes very good use of traditional and interesting serving pieces to emphasize the fun, Latin-inspired nature of his cuisine. Chef Zweiban likes for the serviceware to be practical, and serve a real purpose besides just looking cool. He uses cazuelas, a traditional, earthenware ramekin-like dish, which he can bake in and then bring to the table. He serves his various ceviches in bowls on ice and also offers oysters as shooters. To make the service more interactive with guests, the waiters spoon his coconut-vegetable rice out of mini sauce pots tableside. Each individual item on his sampling platter of tapas, the empanada, croqueta, tiny lamb taco and mango shrimp skewer, is attractive in and of itself, but together, coupled with a judicious use of black beans, guacamole, finely diced peppers and various sauces applied with streaker bottles on a matte black plate, the combined effect is fantastic.
Chef/Owner Brian Caswell of Reef in Houston feels one of the most important things on a plate is the space between the other items. He spoke of the Japanese concept of Ma, which he described as the absence of matter. Ma is often used in relation to the arts to describe, for instance, a dramatic pause in an actor’s lines, or the way a musician might choose to phrase a particular passage. Chef Caswell said that for him, the Yin-Yang symbol is a perfect example of Ma. He likes his plates to be simple and beautiful, with the empty spaces framing and adding shape and movement to his presentations. He says that the sight of a beautiful plate is the guest’s first “taste,” and that if it doesn’t look great, it won’t taste great. It’s also important to him that his presentations “eat well.” By this he means that the food should be easy and convenient to eat with whatever utensils the dinner would normally be using. Examples of what wouldn’t work are towers of food that come tumbling down when looked at too closely, or soup garnishes that don’t fit on the spoon. He also thinks of how when different ingredients on the plate should be eaten together for the sake of flavor, the fork will naturally pick them all up at the same time. It’s a priority for him that any presentation he decides to use is easy for his staff to do well. He’s not a fan of any presentation that requires the food to be touched by the cooks too much, especially to the point that either the food, the plate or both get cold before they leave the kitchen.
Tim Hockett is a Corporate Chef for Lettuce Entertain You. He feels that presentation is equal to taste in importance. “When someone sits down to a dinner, they are bringing all their senses to the table. Sight and smell give the first impression, long before taste even comes into play.” In his corporate test kitchen, he realizes that at some of their restaurants a small crew in a tight kitchen will be doing his plattings for over 1,000 guests a night, so speed is of the essence, with no time to fiddle with garnishes for more than a couple of seconds. Because of this, in some cases he’s moved away from traditional garnishes and instead incorporates the presentation into the dish itself. The rules are different in his high-end restaurants. There, the guests expect to be amused and surprised throughout the night, and the whole concept becomes a little like dinner as theater. Of course, in these restaurants there is a lot more staff serving a lot fewer guests, so it all works out.
Chris Shepherd is Chef/Managing Partner at Catalan Food & Wine in Houston. He says that to him presentation is “just a feel” and that any presentation “should always let the food do the talking.” Considering the passion he has for appreciating the very essence of the freshest, often locally grown ingredients available, it’s no wonder that his plates are some of the most stunning, but unpretentious around. His “blackened redfish over a St. Arnold’s crawfish boil with all the goods” is a beautifully simple example of his style. A perfectly blackened (not too light, not too dark), perfectly fresh redfish fillet is served over a bed of what could be considered a light stew consisting of all of the components of a traditional crawfish boil, corn, potatoes, andouille sausage and, of course crawfish, with the vegetables and sausage finely diced, and all cooked in a local microbrew, St. Arnold’s Pale Ale (beer being the last, but certainly not least important part of a crawfish boil). A signature dish of his is crispy pork belly with Steen’s pure cane syrup. It consists of three cubes of nicely browned pork belly, crunchy on the outside, melt-in-your-mouth on the inside, each on a small sugarcane skewer, sitting in a drizzled pool of glistening, dark emulsion and served on a white, rectangular plate. Again, it’s the expert preparation of an unusual, but amazingly satisfying choice of product that “does the talking.” Chef Shepherd isn’t a fan of things like really high desserts, believing they “miss the point.” He also doesn’t see the need for keeping current with the latest ideas, like foams, just for the sake of keeping current.
So if these are the thoughts and practices of some top chefs in their own restaurants, what about some practical, nuts and bolts suggestions that you can use in yours? What follows are some simple ideas that will cost very little in terms of money, training, complication and time, but will increase your customers’ satisfaction and perceived value of your food. Hopefully, they will also help keep interest high with your kitchen staff and result in bigger tips for your waiters.
One of the easiest ways to dress up a plate is by using “fleckage.” By this, I mean sprinkling something over either the food, plate rim, or both. The simplest thing to use is either chopped, wrung Italian parsley or cilantro, depending on the flavor profile of the dish. First, finely chop the herb, then put it in the center of a clean side towel, fold and tightly wring it out until you’ve gotten rid of all the water content. The chopped and wrung herb will keep, refrigerated in a sealed container for a couple of days to be used as needed. You wring it out so that it doesn’t clump up on the plates, and so that it will keep longer. Brunoise red, yellow or green bell pepper can also be used, although its preparation requires a little more skill, and it won’t keep quite as long. First, cut the top and bottom off of the pepper, remove the seeds, and make a cut down the side, resulting in one rectangular piece of pepper. Then lay the pepper, skin side down on the cutting board and, using a chef’s knife, “rib out” the pepper, removing as much of the membrane as your skill allows. Keeping the skin side down, slice it into very narrow strips, then cut the strips into tiny dice. The tiny dice (“Brunoise”) can be used to fleck on your plates. It should be stored in a refrigerator in a sealed container when not in use. Roasted and (possibly) chopped nuts or seeds (pecans, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, piñon, pistachios, black or white sesame seeds…) also work great. Again, it’s good to consider the flavor profile of the dish when making your choice. Another easy and attractive choice is to use chives, chopped either in half inch sections, or as finely as your knife skills will allow.
A variation on the theme of fleckage is to lightly dust dessert plates with either cocoa powder or powdered sugar, using a fine metal strainer.
Using plastic “streaker bottles” to apply cold sauces is popular for a reason. It’s really easy to get cool looking results and have your guests feel like you’re giving them something they can’t get at home. The sauces can either be savory, like tarragon mayo, red pepper coulis or plain sour cream, or sweet, like caramel, chocolate or raspberry sauces. They can either be made from scratch or purchased ready-made. Make sure that they’re thick enough not to run. When “painting” the plate, the easiest thing to do is to make a series of dots on the plate, either in a straight line or curve. The dots can either be small (1/4” in diameter) or large (1” in diameter). If you drag a skewer through the dots, you end up with hearts (always popular on Valentine’s Day). If, instead of dots you make a circle around the perimeter of the plate, then repeatedly drag a skewer through the line from the center of the plate to the edge, you get a sunburst pattern. If you make three circles of different color sauces, then drag a skewer through all three, alternating directions (center to edge, edge to center…), you get a very nice border for whatever you put in the middle of the plate. How about tracing a spiral through the three different color circles…you get the idea. It’s a fun thing to play around with. Another easy way to use streaker bottles is to do a zigzag pattern over the whole plate or just a portion of it. If you do a zigzag pattern, then turn the plate 45 degrees and do it again, and maybe turn and streak again, you get something that looks like a basket weave.
Great grill marks help with presentation at least as much as any “trick” with sauces. To get grill marks that would make any food stylist jealous, first get your grill as hot as possible. Brush it down with a stiff grill brush, rub it down with a side towel with oil on it. Next make sure that whatever you’re grilling is bone dry by patting it down with a paper towel. Place the product on the grill and, after it’s nicely marked to a deep brown, rotate it 45 degrees. Wait till it’s nicely marked in the second position and flip it over. You’ll have great looking, hatched grill marks that should be displayed with pride on the plate.
Another thing to keep in mind, especially with banquet work, is to try to think of presentations that, at least to some extent, can be plated in advance. A salad I used to do when catering could be plated almost entirely in advance with no loss in quality. Ahead of time, we would place three pieces of Belgian endive on each plate at 12, 4 and 7 o’clock. On each of these would go a marble-sized ball of Stilton coated in chopped, roasted hazelnuts. In between each piece of endive, near the edge, would go a small pile of sun-dried cherries soaked in Port. So far, everything on the plate was very durable and we had no worries about anything not holding well. At the last minute we would dress mesclun in a hazelnut vinaigrette, put a stack of it in the center of the plate and dust with ground hazelnuts. It looked great, but was almost effortless at service.
With just a little thought and effort, some new and improved presentations might do more to keep your customers coming back, increase your staff’s enthusiasm and improve profitability than any number of more expensive and difficult ideas. The way the food looks on your plates says at least as much about your restaurant’s identity and aspirations as anything else in your dinning room. The time you put into your food presentations will always be time well spent.