We’re thrilled to bring you our new series, The Art of Plating, where we take you into the imaginations of chefs as they design and present their dishes. We show you how they do it, in step-by-step photos, and let them explain their creative process in their own words—why they put this sauce here, for example, or why they placed the herbs just so. First up: the revered pastry chef Michael Laiskonis, formerly of Le Bernardin and now the Creative Director of the Institute of Culinary Education. Check back in tomorrow and the day after for more dish design from Chef Laiskonis. – Ed.
The Dish: Greek yogurt panna cotta, basil cake, basil seeds, candied celery, strawberries + strawberry film
I love that yogurt has both lightness and richness, and it’s been part of my vocabulary since the 90’s. It was unusual at the time—I was inspired when I first saw the Spanish avant-garde use it—but I’m so close to it now that I can’t tell if it’s weird or cool or anything to use it in dessert. So I play with it a lot, and I’ve done lots of different versions of this dessert.
For me, an idea is never one dish; the idea keeps going. An example is Pierre Herme. He’s known for maybe 20 flavor combinations, but he’s explored those flavors in a macaron, in a cake, in a glass, in a tart… he’s thought those ideas completely to their end. So for me, I like taking similar components or flavors and just keep working on them. This is a seasonal, early summer version of this dish.
When plating, it’s important to really think things through—how will you get the visual effect you want?—but also to make sure you don’t over-think and over-manipulate things, so it still feels natural.
Greek yogurt panna cotta
The cylinder shape just spoke to me the day I made this dish. The shape gives movement, a direction. But panna cotta should be a custard that’s just barely holding together, so once you do something freestanding, you’re compromising that. My idea was to freeze it so I could handle it and put it on the plate, then let it temper in the fridge.
We made a strawberry consommé with citrus and basil, and set it with agar-agar for strength and gelatin so it will melt on the tongue. I wanted the strawberry and yogurt to be tasted together, so draping it as a film over the panna cotta assured me of that.
Basil pain de Gênes cake
Pain de Gênes is an almond paste-based cake. I like it for a plated dessert because it doesn’t crumble so much; it’s still soft and moist. And I like the idea of using just a little bit of cake as a garnish – flipping that sense that in dessert, cake has to be the center of the plate.
There are five pieces because I like to use odd numbers (unless you’re just doing two of something). Even look numbers look odd… I mean as in strange! Asymmetrical arrangements look more pleasant – they give a sense of motion. And odd numbers naturally give some asymmetry. For the same reason, I didn’t want all the corners of the cake pieces facing the same way.
I’m also using the cake to kind of define the field of the plate, giving a lot of white space on the outside. In 8th grade, I was on the yearbook staff. The one lesson I took away from that was not to give too much white space in the center, because your eyes go directly to it.
Speaking of asymmetry, I made sure to face one of the strawberries pieces in the opposite direction from the others. I like to cut “rings” from the narrowest centimeter of strawberries because it’s an unusual shape; most people see them in wedges. And it keeps them small, because it’s a panna cotta dish, not a strawberry dish.
Basil seeds soaked in basil syrup
Basil seeds are a fun little ingredient with a squeaky kind of snap. That’s really the only “texture” element on the plate. In the 90’s, dessert was: something in the center of the plate, a cold component, a sauce, and a crisp tuile. But I don’t obsess over what every dish “has” to have anymore. Because yogurt is a little lighter and cleaner, I didn’t want a lot of things to compete with that.
Celery really brings herbal, slightly vegetal flavors, and I like using that as a strong constant, like acidity or bitterness or salt. The slices are blanched in water, then cooked lightly in simple syrup, not as long as you would to truly candy something, because I want to preserve the green color. I didn’t mean to make the colors look like Christmas, but red and green do look good with one another.
There are tricks we can use to evoke certain responses. One is to make things look “natural,” like here, making the leaves look like they fell out of the sky. I soaked them in ice water to make them curve more, and plated it with the curve upwards, so it looks like it just landed on the plate.
You don’t see it as much in this photo, but if you look at it from the side or from the diner’s view, the curve in the leaves gives you a different sense of movement. I placed the leaves as if they were actually touching three inches above the plate, and then let them fall away from each other.
But it’s important to not overthink things, to let your design get in the way. The dish has to hit you in a visceral way first, where someone enjoys it without knowing what they’re looking at.