The visual sensation of a dish is as important as its flavour. Follow a few simple rules and you will be impressing your guests at the next dinner party.
Text by Jacqueline Yang
They say that you eat with your eyes first, and while the quality of ingredients, textures and coupling of flavours are the key elements in a successful dish, presentation comes a close second.
Like any art, it is vital to master the basic rules – only after you have done this can you impose individual creativity. And to do this you must understand the rules and philosophies that lie behind each type of cuisine.
Perhaps one of the most distinct styles of plating is seen in Japanese cuisine. It is based on a tradition of minimalist style.
Portions are individually separated and pieces of meat and vegetables are sliced small for ease of use with chopsticks.
Japanese cuisine follows seven methods of food arrangement – the use of which depends on the ingredients and chinaware: sugimori is a standing or slanting arrangement; hiramori is a flat design
with slices of sashimi placed vertically; yamamori is mound-like; tawaramori are blocks of food placed in a pyramid; yosemori is gathered; chirashimori is gathered but with space between the ingredients, and ayamori is woven. Using these arrangements as a basis, chefs can develop their own styles of presentation.
According to Imai Masakazu, Executive Chef at Inagiku, the Japanese restaurant at the Four Seasons in Central, traditions of Japanese plating developed as a reflection of the seasons.
“Japan has very distinct seasons and with each change comes a whole host of ingredients and fresh foods that are used,” Masakazu says. “The arrangement of food should echo the seasonality of the food. This is done through the use of different chinaware, flowers and leaves.”
The use of contrast is vital throughout Japanese cuisine. When selecting tableware, a law of opposites is employed. If the food is round in shape, then a square or long, narrow flat dish is used. The same applies to the use of colours, says Oyvind Naesheim, Executive Chef at NOBU InterContinental on the Harbourside, who likens the art of plating to painting a picture.
“At NOBU, we have a more modern approach. We always start with a white canvas. Everything has to harmonise, but also remain simple. The focus should always be the main ingredient. All other additions will revolve around it.
“But colour is equally important. During spring, it’s important to bring out the lightness of the weather so we’ll use seasonal garnishes such as cherry blossom, sakura flowers or bamboo to create summer scenery. In winter, it’s all about the darker garnishes.”
In fact, so integral are the seasons and colour pairings to Japanese cuisine that NOBU has specially designed a collection of white chinaware that are used in NOBU restaurants worldwide. Some dishes depict leaves and flowers to be used during the relevant seasons, while some plates feature circular indents to indicate where sauces or garnishes are to be placed. Naeshim points out that balance and symmetry is fundamental to the Japanese sensibility.
French cuisine, however, takes on an entirely different philosophy. Sebastian Lepinoy, Executive Chef at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon at The Landmark, says that 20 years ago French presentation was virtually non-existent. “If you ordered a coq au vin at a restaurant, it would be served just as if you had made it at home. The dishes were what they were. Presentation was very basic.”
The most common kind of French plating was to show all the ingredients, as they are side by side, placing the starches next to the vegetables, next to the meat or fish. The food would quite often also be stacked, by placing the main item on a bed of vegetables or potatoes.
No doubt the pressures of earning awards and positive reviews have pushed French chefs to take a more artistic approach to plating. And at L’Atelier, Lepinoy feels presentation makes all the difference.
“I love serving our dishes to guests and watching their reactions. Usually, they will look at it first. Then discuss it with their friend, before pulling out a cameraand taking a picture. It is great fun watching different responses.”
It is this playful attitude that is reflected in the presentation style at L’Atelier. While traditional techniques may be used to arrange the food, Chef Lepinoy uses props such as glitter glue and paint to add some extra impact. “Sometimes it’s not always about the most expensive things you can buy, but how you use them,” he says, as he pulls out boxes of silk ribbon, sand, seashells and beads from the kitchen. “After we perfect a dish, we pull out all these props and toys we pick up from small shops in Mong Kok and we play around until we find the best way to present the dish.
“Colour is important so instead of having boring white plates, we have a chef that comes in every morning to paint the plates to match the dishes on the menu. The dishes must catch the attention of the guest at first sight. It must entice the appetite.”
When it comes to Chinese cuisine, food presentation is equally important. “For centuries, Chinese garnishes have consisted of intricate vegetable carvings and herbs to brighten the dish,” says Chef Li Shu Tim at One Harbour Road, Grand Hyatt Hong Kong. “This is because Chinese food presentation is founded on the idea of creating a beautiful visual experience, hence a more enjoyable dining experience. The emphasis on presentation also differs from region to region, and has evolved over time.”
Alvin Leung, Chef at Bo Innovation in Wan Chai, says it is important to remember that Chinese cuisine has always involved communal dining.
“Presentation should not compromise taste, temperature and practicality,” Leung says. “In Northern China, dishes tend to be colder so more time can be given for food arrangement such as with cold cut platters. These kinds of dishes are always arranged to look like a picture with sculptural dragon carvings. But in Southern China, signature dishes that are rice or noodle-based are always hot so they need to be served right away.”
Increasingly though, more chefs have been combining Western presentation techniques with Chinese cuisine – breaking the convention of shared portions. Some might say Chinese traditions should not be tampered with, but Leung disagrees.
“Not all dishes are perfect,” he says. “Even traditional dishes can be improved. The world of food is always evolving and presentation trends come and go. The most important thing to remember is that presentation should never compromise taste.”
TIPS FOR DRESSING A PLATE
A sizeable canvas should be used to showcase your work. Be sure to stock up on large, white plates.
The smaller the portion, the easier it is to play with. Take cue from professional chefs and create compact, elegant servings.
Spruce up your plate with vibrant hues. Green vegetables lose their colours very quickly when cooked. Blanch them just before serving.
If faced with lots of ingredients, the most classic way to plate it is to clock it. Place the starch at 10 o’clock, proteins at six o’clock and vegetables at two o’clock.
Stack slabs of protein over starches into a tight pyramid for the wow factor. Just be careful not to overdo it.
Opt for neutral china and if you must have a design, make sure the motifs are on the borders.
Cookie cutters and moulds are great tools for creating shapes to layer. The thinner the layers, the more impressive the outcome.
Use a paintbrush or squeeze bottle to distribute sauces. Keep the plate clean and show off your creative flair.
Repetition is an easy way of creating a picture. Lay three small identical pieces of protein side by side with different garnishes on each one to add visual interest.
A garnish should only enhance and not overpower. Make sure that garnishes match the ingredients and flavours of the dish.