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A Basic Guide to Food Presentation

If you own a foodservice business, you know that food plating and presentation are central to keeping guests happy as they experience your restaurant. However, plating is often overlooked by chefs who are either too busy or more concerned with the taste of their dishes. People eat with their eyes, and creative and thoughtful plating enhances both the look and taste of your food. Focusing on presentation also allows chefs to showcase their creations and demonstrate to guests that they're getting their money's worth. While there aren't any hard and fast rules when it comes to "correct" plating, there are several important concepts to keep in mind as you prepare and present your restaurant's delicious culinary creations.

Things to Remember Before You Begin Plating Food

Before you begin preparing your dish, you should consider the kind of cuisine you're serving. Are you making a hearty steak dinner, or are you preparing a delicate side dish or appetizer? You can't start building your plate until all of your flavors are finalized, so it's wise to have your ingredients prepared before you begin the actual plating process.

Additionally, you'll want to consider portion sizes before you begin plating. To do so, focus on balancing your protein, carbohydrate, and vegetable to create a nutritionally balanced meal. Ultimately, carefully placed ingredients create art, but presentation should never overshadow taste.

Guidelines for Plating Food

For tips and tricks on how to create a beautiful plate, consider the steps below:

1. Choose the Perfect Plate

Selecting the right plate for your meal is key to attractive food presentation. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Choose the right plate. One way to conceptualize plating is to think of yourself as an artist, the plate as your canvas, and the food as your medium.

Choose the right size plate. Choose your plate wisely by making sure it's big enough to allow your food to stand out, but small enough that your portions don't look too small.

Choose a complementary plate color. The color of your plate is also significant. White plates are popular because they create high contrast and provide a neutral background for your colorful creations. Utilize white space by thinking of the rim as your frame, and consider using the rule of thirds to highlight your plate's focal point(s). When applied to cooking, the rule of thirds prescribes placing the focal point of your dish to either the left or right side of the plate, rather than the center.


2. Placing Your Ingredients

Here are a few of the most important aspects to consider as you build your dish:

Plate with a clock in mind. As you begin plating your ingredients, picture the face of a clock. From the diner's point of view, your protein should be between 3 and 9, your starch or carbohydrate from 9 and 12, and your vegetable from 12 and 3.

Use moist ingredients as your base. Another rule of thumb is to plate moist or runny ingredients first, as they tend to move during delivery if they aren't held down by other foods. One way to anchor runny ingredients is by placing other foods on top of them. For example, you can angle sliced meat or vegetables against purees and mashed vegetables.

Serve odd amounts of food. If you're serving small foods like shrimp, scallops, or bite-sized appetizers, always give guests odd quantities. Serving 7 brussels sprouts instead of 6 creates more visual appeal, and diners will also perceive that they're getting more food.

Place food to create flavor bites. Essentially, flavor bites are forkfuls of food that combine all of the ingredients in your dish into one bite. Creating flavor bites is the perfect accompaniment to creative plating as it pleases both the eye and the taste buds.

Don't overcrowd your plate. Be sure to never overcrowd your canvas, and keep it simple by focusing on one ingredient - usually the protein. Finding a focal point also ensures that the accompanying ingredients will play a complementary, supporting role.


3. Pay Attention to the Details

As you plate your dish, you'll also want to pay attention to the details:

Think about color and contrast. One of the best-kept secrets to beautiful plating is paying close attention to the details. While your focus will obviously be on the protein, considering how the other elements of the plate create color and contrast is also very important.

You can create a beautiful background for your plate by adding green vegetables or brightly colored fruits as accent points. Similarly, try to pair ingredients with complementary colors as this will further enhance your dish's visual appeal.

Create height on your plate. Another way to catch your guests' eyes is to utilize the power of height. While compactly stacking ingredients isn't as popular as it was 5-10 years ago, creating a tall plate can go a long way towards enhancing visual appeal.

You can also balance out taller ingredients by leaning long, flat items against them. For example, you can plate your steak on top of polenta and lean asparagus spears against them at a 45-degree angle.

Use texture to enhance your dish. Finally, don't forget about texture. Contrasting a smooth vegetable puree with crunchy onion straws or topping a steak with crumbled blue cheese creates appealing texture combinations that are classic in high-end cuisine.


4. Design and Create with Sauces

Once you've plated your main ingredients, you're ready to top your dish with delicious sauces. Don't just pour the sauce carelessly all over the plate, though. Instead, think of your squeeze bottle or spoon as a paintbrush, and your sauce as a medium. Then, use them to enhance your plate.

One way to do this is to create accent dots on one side of your plate (while considering the rule of thirds) or by lightly drizzling sauce over the main ingredients so guests get a little bit of sauce in every bite.


5. Use Garnishes Purposefully

In the past, chefs casually threw a piece of kale and an orange slice onto every plate as it left their kitchen. However, these garnishes didn't add anything exciting to the dish, and few guests even ate them in the first place. Here are a few examples of smart garnishes and how to incorporate them:

Choose edible garnishes. As you finish plating, remember that garnishes must be related to the dish and should always be edible. Ultimately, they're designed to enhance and complement the flavors of the entree you've created, not distract from them.

Place garnishes purposefully. Similarly, never heap garnishes in one corner of the plate. Instead, disperse them thoughtfully in order to add color or texture. Also, avoid using unappetizing garnishes like raw herbs, large chunks of citrus, and anything with a strong odor. Lastly, make sure your garnishes are quick and easy to apply, so food still goes out piping hot.

Plating Tools of the Trade

Having the proper food presentation and plating tools is essential to high-quality plating. Here are a few items you should be sure to purchase if you don't already own them:

Decorating Brushes

As one of the most important products in any chef's toolkit, decorating brushes have a variety of applications. You can use them for both detailed line work and broad strokes as you apply sauces, or when plating purees and coulis beneath meat or vegetables.

Garnishing Kits

Garnishing kits come with everything you need to garnish all of your signature dishes, including plating wedges, tongs, squeeze bottles, and brushes.

Molds

Molds are also very important when plating food. By cutting ingredients to a specific shape and size, you'll provide visual appeal and keep your plate tidy. Ring molds also help you develop height and structure when stacking ingredients.

Plating and Precision Tongs

Last but not least, you'll want to have precision tongs on hand for placing garnishes or small, delicate foods. Many tongs also feature micro-serrations for improved grip and stability.

Plating Wedges

Plating wedges come pre-cut with flat, round, or pointed edges and are perfect for smearing sauces and other soft ingredients into designs on your plate.

Shavers

Shavers work well when shaving or grating chocolate, hard cheeses, or soft vegetables on top of your finished creations.

Spoons

You'll also want to have a variety of spoons on hand. Saucier spoons help you drag smears of sauce across your plate, and you can also choose a utensil with a tapered bowl that's perfect for drizzling and pouring. Additionally, slotted spoons quickly separate solids from liquids as you complete your presentation.

Squeeze Bottles

Squeeze bottles are ideal when applying sauces or aiolis to your finished plate. Many of these items come with adjustable, precision control tips that allow you to apply the perfect amount of product.


Examples of Plating Styles

Here are examples of three popular plating styles: classic, free form, and landscape. To demonstrate them, we used filet mignon, potato puree, carrots, a demi-glace, a pea puree, a lima bean and pea blend, thyme, and fried leeks.

Classic Plating

  • 1.

    Pipe the potato puree onto the plate using a pastry bag.

  • 2.

    Place the carrots next to the puree using precision tongs.

  • 3.

    Garnish the carrots with thyme using precision tongs.

  • 4.

    Plate the steak using precision tongs.

  • 5.

    Garnish the steak with fried leeks using precision tongs.

  • 6.

    Drizzle the demi-glace around the plate using a spouted saucier.

  • 7.

    Wipe the edges of the plate with a clean towel.

  • 8.

    Finished classic plate.

Free Form Plating

  • 1.

    Pipe dots of potato puree onto the plate using a pastry bag.

  • 2.

    Slice the steak into three pieces using a chef's knife.

  • 3.

    Plate the pieces of steak using precision tongs.

  • 4.

    Place the lima bean and pea blend around the plate using a spoon.

  • 5.

    Plate the carrots using precision tongs.

  • 6.

    Place dots of pea puree around the plate using a large squeeze bottle.

  • 7.

    Place dots of the demi-glace around the plate using a small squeeze bottle.

  • 8.

    Garnish the plate with fried leeks using precision tongs.

  • 9.

    Wipe the edges of the plate with a clean towel.

  • 10.

    Finished free form plate.

Landscape Plating

  • 1.

    Place dots of pea puree around the plate using a large squeeze bottle.

  • 2.

    Paint the pea puree onto the plate using a brush.

  • 3.

    Pipe the potato puree onto the plate using a pastry bag.

  • 4.

    Plate the carrots using precision tongs.

  • 5.

    Lean the steak against the puree and carrots using precision tongs.

  • 6.

    Place the lima bean and pea blend around the plate using a spoon.

  • 7.

    Drizzle the demi-glace around the plate using a spouted saucier.

  • 8.

    Garnish the steak with fried leeks using precision tongs.

  • 9.

    Wipe the edges of the plate with a clean towel.

  • 10.

    Finished landscape plate.


Whether you own a fine dining establishment, upscale restaurant, or eclectic cafe, thoughtful and attentive plating is sure to improve customers' impressions of your business. An awareness of food presentation also allows you to demonstrate your chefs' skills to customers and helps you highlight all of your restaurant's delicious offerings. With an awareness of these basic principles, techniques, and tools, you're sure to enhance your business' plating and increase sales.

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