When it comes to getting your guests to salivate, how you put the food on the plate is nearly as important how you cook it—a great-looking plate entices, excites, and sets the tone for the meal. And just like your food, plating doesn’t have to be fancy to thrill. You don’t have to be a chef, you don’t have to be an artist, you don’t need to go to culinary school. But it helps to follow a handful of guidelines:
Pick your plate wisely
Patterned dishes can be beautiful, but for maximum appetizing value, keep the focus on the food. Patterns, combined with food, can make the dish look busy, or just take your attention away from the delicious stuff. There’s nothing wrong with plates that have character, but in lieu of polka dots, floral patterns or stripes, opt for simple design elements like a scalloped edge or monotone print.
Compare these two plates of pasta with tomatoes:
What you really want is for the food to “pop” off the plate. Try to plate food on a plate that will give it a gentle but clear contrast. (Red might seem like an odd choice for contrast if you’re serving pasta with tomatoes, but the main color of the food here is actually… the creamy yellow of the pasta!) Incidentally, white is the go-to color in restaurants because there are very few foods that will actually blend in to the plate.
Think about a plate’s size, too. A platter that’s overcrowded, with food spilling over the edges, looks messy and careless, while a plate that’s too big, will make the food look cold and skimpy. A good rule of thumb is to keep at least 1” of space between the food and the edge, or if the plate has a rim, keep it 1” from the inner rim.
When we see sauce, our brain automatically thinks “flavor packed.” But often, I see people scoop food onto a serving platter and leave the sauce behind! Even the smallest pool of sauce on a plate or an extra ladle of gravy draped over stew can make a meal look that much more rich and delicious. Also, sauces are an elegant way to bring color to a plate— think how pretty the earthy, rich hues of gravy, the golden oil slicks in pan drippings or the bright, fresh green of a salsa verde will look at the table.
Notice that we served the sauce pooled under the duck here; if you’re going to go through the trouble of crisping and browning the skin, you don’t want to sog it up with sauce and hide it! Which brings me to my next tip…
Show off the most appealing textures
Show people what words like crisp, crunch, silky and creamy look like. That is, highlight elements of the dish that have the textures that people love. Everyone knows the golden, craggly, crisp skin is the most beloved part of fried chicken, so don’t bury it under a wet pile of coleslaw. If you spend the time to sear a steak, show off that charred crust. If you’ve gently folded toasted nuts into banana bread, serve slices instead of the whole loaf so people can see the hidden gems. If you’re putting fried onions and crisp bacon in a salad, save some of each to place on top at the very end instead hiding all of those textures in the greens.
Make family-style your default
When people want to impress at home, the urge these days is to pretend you live in a restaurant and serve individually composed plates. But you don’t need to do that to make restaurant-style impact at the table. In fact, at Per Se we made a point to “fly the bird” before serving poultry to our guests—we plopped the whole, golden brown, slow roasted bird on a pretty platter, arranged some simple flowers or vegetables around it and took it to the table for the guests to admire. Whole-cooked, bone-in meats make stunning centerpieces. Plus, it can be fun to slice and serve at the table.
A brown and bubbly casserole of mac n’ cheese is mouth watering; present the golden casserole at the table instead of portions on a plate, where the appeal of all that crust and warmth might be minimized. Family-style platters and dishes are an easy way to make an impact—they just invite sharing and feel so generous—and are easy to make pretty if you keep the other guidelines in mind.
Remember how you used to get those lonely sprigs of parsley on the corner of your plate in the 80s? That looks tacky now, but they did it for a reason. Even the smallest element of something green to a plate—fresh herbs, lime zest, chopped scallions—makes a huge difference. Green triggers people to think of nature, fresh foods and things that grow. And, luckily, there’s often something green that will be delicious with whatever you’re serving: an herb, cut scallions, a side of salad. Plus, we should all be eating more green food anyway!
So none of these are mind-bending secrets, but that's also the point: Anyone can make food look great! Check back next week for part two, where I do go into a couple of fancier restaurant-type tricks... but that don't require any tools fancier than a spoon.