Welcome to 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, step-by-step, and let them explain their creative process in their own words—what’s going on in their heads as they put their food on the plate. This week: Wylie Dufresne, of wd-50, for over a decade one of the world’s true leaders in creative, boundary-pushing cuisine. Check back in through the week for more dish design from Chef Dufresne – Ed.
The Dish: Sole, black licorice-pil pil, fried green tomato, fennel
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I’ve never been one to promote the myth that The Chef is the person responsible for all the food in a restaurant. We have a very collaborative team, and when we wrote our new menu, our Chef de Cuisine Jon Bignelli and our Sous Chef Sam Henderson came up with many of the dishes; this one is Sam’s.
So Sam came up to me and said she wanted to make a licorice pil pil. Pil pil is sauce traditionally made from cod skin; there’s so much gelatin that it gets very rich and sticky. She came to me with it, the white sauce on the plate, and I thought, “Why not do a black version as well, with black licorice?” Growing up, my mother always had black and white all over the house, and I thought it would be a sort of a nod to her.
I want to encourage our cooks to use their opportunities for personal expression, and that applies to how they plate the food. Here, for example, I like for the cooks to think about how they would put the sauce on the plate.
White and black licorice pil pil
When you lay sauce down with a spoon, you can control a lot of the look through the angle with which you hold the spoon. For instance, if you drag the spoon away from the sauce with the bowl almost perpendicular to the “puddle,” you can make a thin, hairline kind of line. So I hit upon holding the spoon against the plate in a particular way with the black licorice sauce and it makes these tracks—to me, they look like tire tracks. There’s something about the viscosity of the sauce that makes that happen, but I like that, as a professional, I would look at those tracks and not know how someone did that.
We applied the rest of the sauce as these dots, but also with a spoon, not a squeeze bottle, so the shapes aren’t so tight. It gives them some randomness. Though we’re also moving out of our dot phase…
I love that the actual plate we’re using here has very little rim, so there’s an infinity pool vibe to it. I think it adds to the negative space, and there’s a strong need for negative space on every dish.
Fried green tomato
Sam comes from Georgia, where fried green tomatoes are a popular thing. This is actually more like a marmalade of chopped green tomatoes, but Jon had the idea to shape it, making it look like a proper slice of fried green tomato. When we give people something unfamiliar, we always like to add a familiar element to it. It’s fun, it makes you smile. I think humor is important in the process, in cooking and in eating.
What you can’t tell necessarily tell from the angle of the picture is that this is actually a cylinder of sole, cut at an angle, with one half lying down and one placed standing up. I like the angles that makes on the plate; without getting too trite, if you look at it from the side, there’s a bit of a Sydney Opera House thing going on.
The dish needed some more acid, and some vegetable-ocity. Since we have licorice in the sauce, fennel seemed like an obvious choice—its flavor cousin. I think fennel is better raw; it’s crunchy and bright. We dressed it with some lemon vinaigrette and then vacuum packed it to push that flavor into the fennel.
Laying the fish the way we did, it felt like there was a natural crook between the two pieces, so I placed the fennel in there— I wanted the fennel to feel like it’s climbing up to the top of the fish.
I’m not always a big believer in that you need to bring green to a plate, but the fennel’s fronds seemed like an opportunity to push that fennel flavor. And it is an otherwise a pretty stark black and white dish—minus the fried disk—so the green really pops out.
TOMORROW: What happens when wd-50 makes “deli meat”: cured veal brisket, mustard crisps, and plum sauce