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Respected chef-restaurateur Bob Kinkead once told me that dinner should be “a circus on the plate.”
Well, that’s not quite my style — and professional food styling has been my meal ticket for 27 years. Restaurant service has lots more helping hands than when you entertain at home, I reckon. But I like to bring composed plates to the table, even for casual meals. It’s a luxury when a host says, “Let me fix you a plate.” I don’t have to worry about how much — or little — to take. A buffet’s not for me.
First and foremost, what you’re serving should look nice. You want to honor your own effort and the ingredients. When the food is beautiful, your guests will assume it tastes good as well. The time it takes to build each portion in the kitchen allows for just enough of an appreciative pause among diners, I’ve found.
Passing food in platters at the table has the charm of informality, but I find it disruptive. Serving dishes always end up at one end of the table or the other, crowding the unfortunate guests nearby. A casserole filled with lasagna can be hot and heavy; dressed greens can fall out of a big salad bowl and wreck a tablecloth. Guests who self-serve often fail to get an equal share of all of the salad components. Everybody loves pie, but cutting into it at the table is just a mess.
While I was gathering ideas for this article, I asked friends in my knitting group how they like to plate food for a dinner party. (I’m not sure they thought I was serious.)
“Post a diagram over the buffet,” quipped one.
“Hire a caterer,” remarked another.
“At least hire a server,” said my best-cooking friend.
I’m down with the server idea, but you can call for a volunteer. Ask the most agile and agreeable guest to help. A party of 12 is about the maximum you can handle for plating unless you’ve hired a server or two. If your kitchen is too small to handle the spread of plates, set up a folding table that’s close by yet out of sight.
You can compose dishes like a pro, keeping the following things in mind. Just remember that lighting is key: Everything looks better at the table than it does in the kitchen.
Set out all of your tableware ahead of time. Make sure it is clean.
Think about your menu, dish by dish and plate by plate. You might even draw it. Or try it.
Separate the parts of the dish beforehand (say, the different vegetables and sauce in a stew), then construct. Prepare your mise en place, with all plates and all parts of the dish in order. Look, think and build.
Large, white plates flatter food, plain and simple. They are versatile, and a great investment.
Rimmed plates contain and frame the food. That said, rimless plates are roomier and more modern. A flat well is great; sauces stay put. I find flat plates much easier to work on, and more inspiring.
Remember the spiced apple ring garnish, perched on a scrunchy of greens? It was there to add color, which is so important on a plate. But don’t force it. If red bell pepper does not enhance the dish, leave it off.
Regardless of the size of your plate, don’t overfill it. White space is as essential as all other elements, perhaps more so. Give the food room to breathe.
White space is a good thing. But don’t trap a negative/empty space in the middle of the plate.
Dress the plate as your guest will see it. The dish has a front and a back. Six o’clock will be the front. Look at what you are doing from a 45-degree angle. Set the plate in front of you and look at it. Look again.
Neatness counts. A lot.
Establish a focal point.
Asymmetry is pleasing.
Think in odd numbers; three or five fingerling potatoes per serving. Seven bits of lamb on a skewer. I don’t know why this is better; it just is.
Warm the plates in a low oven or stacked at the back of the stove (making sure they are out of splatter range). Don’t serve cold food on warm plates, though.
Don’t overwork or overhandle the food. Pick up the food and let it fall slowly onto the plate in a nice, natural haystack: salad, beans, slaw, anything loose.
Add height and drama by putting down the starch, or a green such as wilted spinach or other soft, leafy green sauteed or not, and set something to lean on it: sliced flank steak, zucchini pancakes, a fish fillet or a boneless chicken breast.
Serve a variety of shapes, textures and colors. Avoid a plateful of round things, for example, such as meatballs, Brussels sprouts, and new potatoes; steer clear of a plateful of soft foods such as sauteed greens, a potato puree, and sole.
Think about shapes. Cut zucchini into ribbons with a vegetable peeler. If your typical chopping size is a half-inch, try something smaller or bigger.
Fresh garnishes make the plate look fresh.
Put the sauce in the bottom of the plate, keeping in mind that the cheffy “schmear” is a fad whose time has past. Then maybe drizzle a little sauce on top of the food, just before serving.
Test the thickness and flow of a sauce on the plate and adjust it as necessary. (See “The plans,” above.) Just before serving, heat the sauce and put it into a pitcher with a good pouring spout, or, if you want to get truly restaurant-like, apply it from a large squeeze bottle.
Slow-roast green vegetables such as asparagus or green beans; they stay wonderfully emerald green and remain just as tasty.
Keep salad greens wrapped in a clean dish towel placed inside a plastic bag. Drippy lettuce does not hold dressing well and makes for messy plating.
If a pie or cake is especially attractive, present it whole at the table, take in the oohs and ahhs, then go back into the kitchen to carve it up.
Get creative with the garnish — I like to think of it as the plate’s punctuation — and prepare it ahead of time. A spiced pastry straw or a lemon twist or a little mound of fresh pea shoots or shaved carrots or toasted almond slices or whatever will enhance the dish.
Think it over; make sure it will add in terms of taste, color and texture; prepare it; and store it well. Put it in ice water if needed, or store it airtight to keep it crunchy and fresh.
Green is good: chopped parsley, sliced chives, minced scallions, zested lime and tiny mint or basil leaves. A little something uncooked can be just the thing to add zest, bite and zing.
• Squeeze bottles. For sauces, condiments, oils (flavored or not) and other taste accents and finishers. Last-second drizzles onto meats, pizza, potatoes, pasta, grilled vegetables — virtually anything, really — can make a meal. You can cut off the squeeze-bottle tips to customize them.
• Big spoons. The kind used for soup, the inexpensive stainless-steel kind. You can bend the handles to fit the purpose. Use the spoons to nap sauces and to place rice, purees, small vegetables, and salsas on the plate. A larger, but not huge, spoon is easy to manage and fun to use. But stay away from giant kitchen spoons when you are plating. Using them is like working with monster-size gloves.
• Small ladles. When you hold a ladle, choke up on the handle for better precision.
• Soft, white kitchen towels. Have piles of them.
• Pastry bags and tips. Learn to use them, because they are incredibly versatile for whipped cream, mascarpone, vegetable purees, forcemeats, you name it. They make food arranging nice and neat and manageable.
• Tongs. The plain ones for maximum grabbing — not silicone-tipped or shaped like an alligator. Spring-loaded. When they wear out, recycle them and get new ones.
• Folding tables. They are easy to store and great to have in a pinch.
And the best tools? Your clean hands.