How to Plate Food at Home like a Top Chef
With the introduction of Masterchef to our lives a few years ago, came a new interest in food, cooking and plating. A home-cooked meal that looked (if not tasted…) like a restaurant-quality dish was no longer out of reach for everyday men and women sitting at home Googling mise en place and sous vide.
“Plating is extremely important because before you even take a bite of your dish, you visually begin to experience and take in the dish,” says Kelvin Cheung, chef and owner of the Mumbai eateries Bastian and One Street Over. “We really do eat with our eye.”
This is good news for those of us whose cooking is more meh than amazing. So, we talked to Cheung as well as Vikram Khatri, chef at Guppy, another Mumbai joint, to find out how to plate food like a pro.
Top chefs’ tips for food presentation
Speaking of plates, pick the right ones.
The first thing you want to do to start plating like a pro is pick the right crockery. Using a dark plate when serving a dark food like, say, a chocolate cake, will take away from your presentation; you’ll lose the shape and texture of the cake as it blends into the dark background.
Think of your plate as your canvas and your food, the paint.
“White is usually the preferred plate of choice as this will let your ingredients shine,” Khatri says.
But alternative dish textures can add some oomph. Khatri suggests a wooden (food-grade) board for your hors d’oeuvres, or a wooden bowl for your salad.
Next, consider the size of your plate, he adds. If you’re serving up a salad best piled high, choose a shallow bowl over a small plate; or if you’re serving a main course with many elements, make sure you’re using a larger dish to accommodate them.
Go with odds over evens.
Many chefs go by the rule of odd numbers: Somehow, using an odd number of elements is more appealing to us than an even number. The theory is the odd number creates visual tension, making it more exciting to look at and diners more likely to dive in. While researchers dispute it, it’s an accepted rule of plating, which is why you’ll always be served three jumbo prawns even though you always want one more.
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Find a focal point.
Arranging the food around one key element draws diners’ eyes into the dish. The main item could be the protein, or the pasta, vegetables or curry. Really, it’s whatever you think is the standout part of the meal. The idea is simply to help the diner understand what’s on the plate and how to consume it in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing. For example, spreading out your chicken in five different places interspersed with vegetables may look very artistic, but can be confusing for someone to know where to dig in.
Think in 3D.
“Height, texture and colour are your best friends when you think about plating,” Cheung says.
A lot of non-chefs think of a plate as a two-dimensional plane, but creating a sense of depth brings out the different shapes and textures of food in a mouth-watering way. Even if you have something as simple as rice, Cheung says, choose to fluff it up rather than smash it down. Or when serving up pasta, twirl your spaghetti around the fork and place it down in a spherical heap, rather than lumping it into the bowl. Or when baking a cake or lasagne, spend time on the layers – they’ll look lovely once the dish is cut into.
Contrast your colours.
You don’t dress in monochrome – why would you eat in it either? Adding in a variety of colour is a great way to make a meal more interesting (as well as ensure you’re getting balanced nutrients). Indian food is often brownish or reddish, so the chefs suggest offsetting it with turmeric-coloured rice, bright green coriander, or a bright, fresh salad.
An easy way to do this is by adding a simple garnish. Browning some extra-crispy chicken skin, chopping a spray of herbs, or adding a few dots of cream or butter gives the eye something more to take in and the tongue more to taste. But, “don’t use inedible garnishes,” Khatri warns. “This can be very popular with desserts, but ensure that everything on your plate is adding to the dish. If you want to use a particular flower but feel the flavour may go against the dish you’re serving, just scrap it.”
Remember: Less is more.
“Don’t go overboard and start adding extra ingredients simply to create a pretty picture,” Cheung says. At the end of the day, if the food doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t matter how beautiful it looks.
Finally, be clean.
Both chefs say to make sure you wipe your plates clean of unintended drizzles and spatter before sending them out.