Front & Center of the Plate
The valuable real estate at center-of-the-plate used to be owned by traditional proteins – steak, fish, chicken, pork – the usual suspects. There are changes afoot. While these menu mainstays will likely retain some of their share front and center, indications are that consumer preferences are leaning more toward larger portions of vegetables, grains and meatless entrees.
These preferences present a challenge to the traditional methods of plating – although not necessarily a daunting one. In fact, vegetables and grains add new dimensions of color, texture and shape that can truly enhance plating that appeals to the modern aesthetic.
As every savvy culinary professional is aware, no matter how stellar one’s fare, it will appear and even taste better if it is showcased in an artful presentation. The plate should elicit oohs and aahs as it passes through the dining room to its final destination.
Modern plating invites creativity, imagination and a willingness to color outside the lines. Conventional plating can still be your guide. For example, where a steak would hold center court as the focal point with sides to the rear, a vegetarian or grain-based entrée can still occupy the front-row seat. Depending upon the consistency, it may need to be served in a vessel to separate it from the side dishes and garnish. While the entrée ought to be the focal point, it should not totally obstruct the view of the sides.
Many of today’s modern entrees are one-dish meals that cover the entire plate. Thus, it is critical that colorful ingredients and garnishes relieve any visual boredom in the dish. Edible garnish can work wonders as a medium with which to create a masterpiece, and even provide the finishing touch by adding your own signature hallmark. Idea starters: Cut your logo into a wedge of perfectly aged cheese; fashion a fan of sugar snap peas; form a lovely rose out of thinly sliced tomato flesh; fill an artichoke bottom with baby beets; sprinkle on a liberal mix of sprouts and elegant edible flowers. These items can easily be prepped ahead to streamline your production line.
Some one-dish entrees can easily be formed into an interesting circular shape using a mold, and once turned out on the plate, a nifty well is made in the center to fill with a colorful side, such as vegetable ragout or a chop salad. Paella, spanakopita, frittatas, risottos, quinoa stew and scores of other popular main dishes are candidates as shape-shifters. Forming foods such as ancient grains into mounds on the serving plate is another interesting option. Use your imagination to add flecks of color and texture inside, outside and peeking out from under the mounds.
There are, of course, instances when the best plate for displaying and serving a particular dish is actually a bowl, which is certainly true in the case of today’s popular noodle/broth dishes and main dish salads. A small cast iron skillet makes a cool conveyor for fajitas and other items that require heat retention. Baskets are naturals for holding individually wrapped sliders and fries. Individual single-serving casseroles are perfect for pot pies and stews. Diners appreciate visually interesting presentations, as long as they make sense in the context of the menu item.
Consult the Color Wheel
Nobody wants to dig right in to a beige meal. Yet, some of today’s most popular foods aren’t naturally gorgeous. Remember, even the plainest face can be alluring with the application of a little makeup. The same is true with bland-looking food. Use of color and texture will perform an instant beauty makeover. A smattering of grape tomatoes, sliced daikon radishes, dried cherries, currants, golden caviar, toasted nuts, sliced scallions, fresh herbs, shredded or crumbled cheese, thinly sliced avocados, a fried egg, etc. will add spark and dimension to a dish that otherwise might appear plain and lifeless.
As more ethnic dishes have earned a permanent place on mainstream menus, it’s interesting to explore how these dishes are presented in authentic restaurants. One of the blandest looking of today’s popular trends has to be hummus and pita. Beige on beige. Yet, Middle Eastern restaurants stylize the plate presentation into a masterpiece. Wedges of pita bread are placed around the periphery of a plate. In the center, mounds of hummus, baba ganoush and whipped Feta share center-of-the-plate. In the remaining space, Kalamata olives, tomato wedges and cucumber slices are interspersed for a pleasing and compelling presentation. A quick garnish with minced parsley balances color.
There are no hard-and-fast rules in modern plating. While it is important to achieve a balance of function, form, color and texture, let your practiced eye be the best judge. Ask yourself: Would I be impressed with this plate presentation? If not, rethink your approach.
Don’t Neglect the Kiddos’ Plates
Never underestimate the influence that children have on a family’s dining-out decisions. Adding a bit of whimsy to presentations is sure to delight your youngest patrons and ensure that they’ll want to return again and again. Try these ideas on for size:
- Write the child’s name on the rim of their plate with a plastic squeeze bottle filled with ketchup for the main dish and chocolate sauce for dessert.
- Make a face atop burgers or individual round pizzas using olive slices for eyes and a big curved smiling mouth cut from cheese.
- Kids love lots of color and unusual shapes. Cut a variety of vegetables and fruit into matchsticks and bite-size coins for little fingers to easily grasp.
- Use ramekins to hold side dishes of mac and cheese and cute tiny baskets for fries.
- Invest in tall shot glasses to use in layering puddings with cookie crumbs and whipping cream for a happy-making parfait.
- Miniature long-handled spoons are the perfect tool to reach the bottom of the glass.