Art of making food look good

Restaurants are focusing on food presentation to elevate the dining experience. Tini Sara Anien dives into the world of food plating.
Last Updated : 08 June 2024, 03:32 IST
Last Updated : 08 June 2024, 03:32 IST

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There’s little to argue that social media has changed the way we dine. We like to click photos of the food tabled in front of us before digging in. Food plating has, thus, become paramount to please new-age diners. It refers to the art of arranging and decorating dishes on a plate before serving to make it visually appealing, dramatic even.

Most of us eat with our eyes first, chef Vikas Seth and culinary director with Embassy Leisure explains the importance of food plating. He says something as basic as a platter of nachos needs to look eye-catching today. Seth gives an example from Sanchez, a casual dining place he runs in Bengaluru. “When we serve ‘Fiesta nacho’, we stack nachos, beans and guacamole and add pico and sour cream on the side in such a way that it looks like a scene out of a Mexican festival,” he says.

Minimalism is in 

Until a decade ago, food presentations were elaborate. Think of the French dessert Croquembouche, where choux pastry puffs were piled into a tall cone. “Now, there has been a shift towards minimalism. An ingredient-focused approach has set in,” says chef Ashwin Iyer. He is better known as the MagicPlateMan on social media.

Iyer explains, “There is a greater emphasis on letting natural colours and simplicity of ingredients shine on a plate. More negative space (empty space around food) and asymmetrical arrangement are preferred.” Celebrity chef Nimish Bhatia concurs and says even if the food served occupies only
40% to 45% of the plate, it makes sense now.

New tableware

Flat and round plates have fallen out of favour. The use of all-purpose plates, measuring eight or nine inches, has also come down. “Chefs are now using plates in square, hexagonal, octagonal and tear-drop shapes,” shares Bhatia. 

Among innovative plates, Seth brings attention to edible spoons. “Serving a mousse with spoons made of lavash bread is also being seen now,” he says.

Main versus side dish

In conventional plating, the face of a clock is used as a guide to organise food items on a plate. That is, if the main dish (chicken, fish or vegetable) is placed at the centre of the plate, the side dish will be placed where the clock’s hands show 12, the relish at 12.15, and the sauce at 12.30. “Today, no one follows such rules. Food creators now believe that everything on the plate is as important as the main dish,” says Bhatia.

Dishes are now presented linearly. Earlier, a grilled chicken served at a restaurant would come with mashed potatoes and other vegetables on the side. “Now, you will probably see mashed potato laid at the bottom, vegetables over it, then the chicken and some sauce drizzled around the plate,” he explains.

Final touch

The use of edible flowers (such as lavender, rose, and jasmine) and microgreens (such as the first germinate of green chilli or radish) to decorate a dish has grown too, moving away from the usual coriander and mint.

The preference for garnishes have moved on from herbs to microherbs such as sunflower and amaranth, and to smaller condiments such as leek ash and cardamom seeds. They add a pop of colour, says Bhatia.

Plating 101

A good plating must balance three elements: colour, texture, and composition. Iyer explains: “Colour not only enhances a dish’s visual appeal but also evokes emotions. Incorporating natural colours from fruits, vegetables and spices creates a vibrant plate.”

Use a white plate if your dish is colourful and includes a lot of greens and microgreens, offers Bhatia.

Textures lend a sensorial experience to dining. “A mix of crunchy, creamy and crisp textures can make a dish interesting,” says Iyer, adding quickly that chefs are using modernist cooking techniques like fluid gels and sous-vide for precise texture control.

As far as the importance of composition goes, it guides the diner’s eye across the dish. It involves a thoughtful arrangement of the main dish but also how you pour sauces, drizzle herb oils, dust spices, and add edible flowers before serving.

All these elements should strike a balance between form and function. Iyer explains,“Aim for a variety of textures to engage the senses and to provide a pleasing contrast with each bite.”

Begin with an appropriately sized plate depending on what you want to serve and the portion size. Choose a plate that contrasts with the dominant colour of the dish. Top the dish with sauces creatively but sparingly, ensuring these don’t overwhelm the main flavours. “Choose relevant garnishes. Garnishes like microgreens or edible flowers must be seasoned — they cannot be bland or stale. But garnishes should never overshadow the main dish in terms of flavour,” adds Iyer.

Varying inspiration 

Food plating can draw inspiration from everything from art and nature to architecture and personal experiences. The dynamics of plating now depend on the cuisine and ingredients one is working with, says Iyer. In that scheme of things, fusion cuisines lend to a lot of innovation in terms of plating, such as Indian bento boxes (Indian-Japanese) and entremets with Indian flavours (Indian-French).

Iyer says the principles of plating can vary from a fine dining restaurant to a casual cafe. “In fine dining, structured and geometric presentations are common. Modern bistros favour organic and free-form styles.”

Food presentation also varies with every course of the meal. In earlier courses, the focus is to highlight the freshness and vibrancy of ingredients. “Dessert plating allows for more artistic freedom due to its inherent focus on aesthetics. Chefs use vibrant colours, intricate shapes and decorative garnishes,” says Iyer.

Among cuisines, the emphasis on plating techniques is higher in European food because they are often individual orders, not meant for sharing. Also because this has been a tradition. “The documentation of the concept started there (first). They were more scientific about it and even published a lot of books,” Seth says. But the emphasis on looks is lesser while plating Mexican and Indian foods because these are mostly shared.

The growing popularity of regional cuisines in India is also causing a shift in plating protocols. Earlier, north Indian food was always seen as Punjabi food and food from west India was assumed to be Marathi or Gujarati food. South Indian food was dominated by food from Chennai and food from eastern India went as far as Bengali food. Bhatia says chefs are now coming up with unique presentation styles to go with regional cuisines. Now a Chicken Chettinad is served with a side of podi (coarse spice mixture), and a masala dosa is accompanied by an array of colourful chutneys.

Plating trends change with food trends. The idea is to offer diners an element of surprise. “Many have moved to molecular gastronomy,” says Bhatia.

Tech corner

Chefs are resorting to technological tools to take their plating game a notch up.

Iyer says, “The introduction of 3D food printing has revolutionised plating. Chefs are making chocolates in complex shapes using 3D printed moulds.” Seth says some even 3D print stencils to make customised garnishes.

Then Mixed Reality (XR) is making dining interactive. He elaborates, “Le Petit Chef by Skullmapping is one of the most popular implementations of XR in dining. Projectors  above the table display a video of a miniature chef who cooks food right on the diners’ empty plates. After this the food is served. Tree by Naked in Tokyo combines art, projection mapping, VR and AR to create a dining adventure. The food is plated in a way that complements the virtual elements that are projected directly onto the dishes and the table.”

While the integration of XR in Indian restaurants isn’t as widespread or advanced as it is globally, the increasing interest in merging technology with dining suggests that more innovative uses of XR can be expected in the future, he adds.

Published 08 June 2024, 03:32 IST

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