When it comes to plating food, there’s no question that a heaping mound of earth-toned casserole is much less appealing on a plate than a well though-out, visually appealing masterpiece. For Valentine’s Day, take that special meal to the next level by following a few simple plating tips and recommendations. It will surely make your meal even more outstanding.
What are you cooking?
An appetizer could be as low brow as chips and dip, or it could be as elaborate as seared foie gras atop toasted brioche with a drizzle of a reduced sauce and a microgreen garnish. The key is to have complementary textures and colors. Perhaps that chips and dip only needs a sprinkling of vibrant green parsley to add a little pizzazz. The latter appetizer example is on the other end of the spectrum and makes a statement on its own.
Soup could already be a vibrant red, in the case of tomato basil, and only need a garnish of parmesan crisps or crostini. Colorful salads can shine in their simplicity—mixed spring greens, croutons, grape tomatoes – all tossed in a light vinaigrette right before plating.
Traditionally, a main course (think a restaurant) consists of a protein, starch, and a vegetable. Steak, a loaded baked potato, and asparagus come to mind. The steak should be between 6–8 ounces, the russet potato medium-sized, and there should be a nice bundle of asparagus spears—7–9.
Dessert may be a simple scoop of chocolate ice cream with a tuile cookie poking out of it or a homey smallish serving of bread pudding drizzled with caramel and sprinkled with Maldon sea salt.
The takeaway is you want complementary colors, flavors, and textures for your menu.—
Once you’ve determined what you’re cooking, you need to determine what you’re going to plate it on or in. Whether you’re plating an appetizer, soup, salad, main dish, or dessert, consider the quantity of food versus the size of the vessel you’re going to plate it on.
Obviously, a restaurant often has a variety of dishes to work with. You’ve got what you’ve got. The key is to determine what fits best in what dish or plate. Think about Goldilocks; you want a dish that’s just right.
One trick to remember is the rule of odds. As a very general rule, odd numbered things look better on a plate than even numbers. Think three or five scallops versus two or four. The eye likes the odd numbers.
Another element to think about is height. When possible, try to create varying levels. For example, pipe or dollop roasted garlic mashed potatoes at nine o’clock (pretend your plate is a clock). Rather than propping a whole steak against the mashers at around six o’clock, slice the steak into thin slices and fan the meat against the mashers. Vibrant green asparagus or caramelized roasted carrots can be stacked from one o’clock to five o’clock. A rich, deep-hued steak sauce poured over some of the potatoes and steak will form a figurative bridge between the two.
Lastly, think about the garnish. It should be an extension of the dish rather than an afterthought. Perhaps it’s a parmesan crisp, because it’s adding more height and a salty crunch to the overall dish. What it shouldn’t be is an orange wedge, which has nothing to do with the dish or a piece of raw purple kale, which doesn’t belong in the dish or in a meat counter display. A sprig of curly parsley seems like a retro unnecessary garnish but perhaps a thyme sprig works because thyme was used in the steak sauce.
Remember, visually the eye goes to white. Look at the plate as a frame; don’t put food around the plate’s edges.
No matter how simple or how elaborate your plating is, remember, the fact that you’re creating food for you or sharing it with a loved one is most important.
Chef Lesli Sommerdorf
A Salt Lake native, Chef Lesli Sommerdorf has always been passionate about food. As a child, she fondly recalls heading to the kitchen after watching Julia Child reruns, where she would create inedible concoctions made from condiments in the refrigerator.
To read more about Chef Lesli, click here.