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The Evolving Art of Plating Food

Christie Keulder, is a columnist, food writer and photographer and one of the new owners behind the fine dining experience in the capital, JoJo’s Café. With his vast experience in all things related to food, 99FM’s MYD Art asked Christie to prepare a short guide for us on how the art of plating food came into being. Using his famous pork belly dish as an example, Christie prepared this journey through history to today’s art form of decorating the plate you serve your food on. With this journey through history we are afforded some great tips for how we plate our own dishes at home, and just in time for the festive season.

The Evolving Art of Plating Food by Christie Keulder

Back in medieval times, the aristocracy and nobility had their food served on platters from where the food was transferred onto individual ‘trenchers’ presented to each individual diner. Trenchers were hard, stale, flat breads used as serving plates for rich and lavish dishes. The stale, dry bread were great for soaking up juices and surplus sauces from lavish dishes, and once the meal was over, the trenchers were offered as food to the poor and the food-deprived who regularly congregated at palace gates looking for a mercy meal or alms of the edible kind.

It is commonly accepted that the trencher is the direct ancestor of the modern dinner plate and a few other “platters-like” artifacts such as cheeseboards. Auguste Escoffier is perhaps the modern chef most credited with modern French fine dining, and one of the first modern chefs to embrace dining from individual plates. From this point on diners could choose what they want to eat, and fine dining as a business was born. From this point onward chefs had to rethink the way they presented a plate of food.

The old adage “you eat with your eyes first” is as relevant today as it was all those years back. In more recent times with the popularity of nouvelle cuisine in the 1960’s and much more recently with molecular or modernist cuisine, the plating and presentation of food had soared to new creative heights.

No doubt it had been helped along greatly by the explosion of food and cooking in mainstream, popular media (television, print and on-line) and today the styling of food is a well-established career in the food industry. It stands alone almost completely in the service of food photography, another modern spin on an old career that highlights the way we present food; in the home and in the restaurants. Home cooks are now more than ever motivated to move closer to the standards of restaurant kitchens and celebrity chefs. All you have to do to get plating tips from the greats and professionals is search the Internet or watch the cooking channels on TV. It is that simple.

Of course the considerations for plating in a restaurant is different from that of a home cooked meal. In a professional kitchen, the chef would ponder his or her plating as part of the overall dish.

There is much to consider: shapes and angles, textures, height, colours, sequence and flow, spaces, placement, and connectivity. There is much more than overall aesthetics to consider.

Most if not all ideas start with the plate itself. What kind of plate would we like to use? Square or round? Bowl, plate or ceramic tile? Deep or shallow? There is no limit to what can be used as plates, and some chefs even work with designers to create their own unique plating artifacts.

sous-vide-pork-bellyLet us assume for a moment we are looking to plate and present a dish built around pork and apples. We have brined the slab of pork belly and cooked it long and slow.

Let us now consider how to plate the dish.

First, we need to decide how to cut the meat. Square blocks? Tri-angles? Do we need to cut it at all? What do we want people to experience about the meat?

If it were steak, we would want to show that the meat was cooked to the right degree of doneness. The meat would thus be cut to show that it is pink and done to medium-rare. But the pork belly was in a water bath for 19 hours. It is no longer pink. Thus for this dish, we do not have to worry too much about the way the meat is cut.

Second, we need to decide where to put the portions of meat on the plate. Off-center and to the side? Or in the middle? We can now put the meat down and start building the plate with garnishes.

Third, we need to decide how the plate of food should be consumed. Pork belly is quite rich and fatty, so it is going to need some acidic component to cut through the richness. For that we made a jelly with apple cider. We also have pickled mustard seeds that are quite acidic. To strike the right balance diners should eat both these elements with their meat. This means that we should plate these elements near the meat; maybe the jelly next to each piece of meat and the mustard seeds on top of the meat. We cannot assume the diner would know what goes with what, when and how.

Forth, we now need some colour on the plate. The apple mousse is brown-green because the apples oxidize once they are cut. This is not a very appealing colour by itself. With the slow-cooked meat and the oxidized apples, the dominant colours of the dish will not be bright; it would be in the brown and green ranges on the colour wheel. If we add pickled red onion to the dish, we add some pink, which breaks the dullness of green and brown, and importantly, we add another acidic component that add freshness and a new texture.

Fifth, our main starch on the plate is mash potato. The texture is both smooth and creamy, so we are going to have to add crunchy elements. Maybe some dehydrated onions or apple. They have interesting shapes, are not too harsh in taste and could made to stand up, and thus is a great way to elevate the over-all height of the dish. Maybe we could also add a fresh apple slaw to add the texture of fresh apples. If we leave the skin on, we will have bright green components, which will be a great addition to the colour of the overall dish.

Finally, we are looking for elements that would add to the aesthetics of the dish.

If they add flavour, great but their job is too make the plate look pretty. We can use flowers – maybe we should consider the purple little wild garlic flowers, they add flavour too. Maybe some micro herbs? These days the options are limitless.

Our plate is now done and looks fantastic.

I bet you good money, the diners are going to reach for the cell phones to take a picture and 14729205_1815773875334658_2624743972447414497_ndiscuss that picture. And while they are doing that, the food will get cold and some of the dainty elements that you have arranged so carefully will start to wilt. And back in the kitchen, you’ll start to feel frustrated because all the trouble you took to gain perfection now seems wasted.

For a fine dining experience, you’ll find Jojo’s Cafe at the Old Breweries Complex in Windhoek or find their Facebook page by clicking here