When it comes to design, chefs have a lot more on their plate than artists who limit themselves to pleasing just the visual sense. Our customers see the plate first—then smell, taste and sense the combination of flavors, textures and aromas we have orchestrated. With all these components contributing to the same end, why should there be so much emphasis on plate presentation? Can the way food is arranged on a plate actually affect the flavor of the food?
Indeed it can, says Bill Phillips, Culinary Institute of America Chef/Instructor. The CIA’s classic French Escoffier Restaurant serves as his classroom, providing students hands-on experience for the required A la Carte Cooking course.
In his class, Phillips emphasizes that, from a psychological point-of-view, presentation clearly affects one’s perception of flavor.
“When presented with a beautifully prepared plate, you are put in a positive state of mind and expect good flavor,” says Phillips. “And when you are looking for good flavor, you’re more apt to find it. Conversely, when you’re presented with a carelessly–prepared or sloppy plate, you’ll be looking for the negative, and most likely will find that instead.”
Quality prep still comes first
The issues of presentation and flavor perception are intertwined. Experts agree that taste still comes first.
Bradley Koehler, Executive Chef of New England Culinary Institute (NECI) Solutions pointedly recalls a dinner where it was obvious the chef probably hadn’t tasted what was being served.
Although the plate was visually pleasing, the combination of duck breast with star fruit and blueberry sauce simply didn’t work. “The flavor was horrendous,” he remembers. Now with NECI for nine years, Koehler teaches a variety of courses that include travel with the school’s Solutions division team to train kitchen staffs at colleges and universities in the onsite market.
Photos from Tyson’s Taste of the Times Project
Always start with great ingredients and cook them properly, advises Koehler. “Regardless of how well the food is presented, if your green beans are overcooked and look like army pants, the food isn’t going to taste good.”
On the other hand, Phillips also offers many graphic examples of how proper cooking techniques affect plate presentation. “Searing a steak properly will naturally impart a deep, rich, brown color, and enticing aroma to it. Under-searing, however, results in a piece of meat that is anemic- looking.” No matter how perfectly prepared the side dishes look or taste, a poorly prepared center of the plate item will ruin many customers’ appetites.
Not all onsite situations are the same, Koehler points out. In catering, presentation quality is greatly affected by logistical issues—your ability to get hot plates out while they’re still hot is another important point for chefs to consider.
“A good rule of thumb is that the total time taken to serve the first to last plate should not exceed 15 to 20 minutes,” he says. The number in a party will often dictate how extensive plating hand work can be, with smaller parties allowing for more detailed work.
Plating activities must be coordinated with holding options and times. If they’re not, “skin” can appear on sauce, fat can solidify, shellfish can turn rubbery and piped foods will droop, cautions Koehler.
Additionally, whether serving a catered event or working from the steamtable line, servers need to be informed by the chef before service about how the plate should be presented to customers.
Many experts suggest holding a pre-service meeting where the cooks and servers sample the food and learn where the 6 o’clock position is—the position of the plate that is placed closest to or directly in front of the guest. There’s evidence to suggest that care in such areas makes a difference even on a serving line. For catered events, it’s critical to a great presentation, just as it is in a white tablecloth restaurant.
An artist's inspiration with a guest's point of view
In the plate planning stage, Koehler likes to sketch out his thoughts.
“I like to begin by drawing on a piece of paper what the dish is will look like. I then put the raw product on a plate and play around with it.
“Prior to actual service, I prepare one plate with the cooked ingredients and set it up on the ‘Detroit assembly line’ as an example for the other chefs to see. I then serve as coach and quality control at the end of the line, putting on the garnish, wiping plates and expediting.”
Once he has decided what is going to go on the plate, Frank Ruffino, an executive chef at Sodexho Marriott Services, also likes to sketch out his plate presentations to serve as a guide. He feels strongly that involving staff and brainstorming with them for creative presentation ideas, is important at this stage.
By soliciting servers’ input, “they know they helped design the plate, they’ve already bought into the idea and the feeling of ownership makes it easier for them to follow through,” says Ruffino. As a visual reminder, several plates are prepared and set out along the line as examples to remind staff of the agreed–upon assembly.
At UCLA, Charles Wilcots, assistant director of residential dining services, stresses that because the college re-engineered its foodservices recently (eliminating steamtable wells), they strive to provide quality food and customer service. “The focus is to provide consistent, quality restaurant- like products that can compete with the private sector eateries in and around our campus,” he adds.
Seven days a week, the management team meets for production meetings. The key people in each restaurant review food presentations of the previous day, the present day and the coming day, considering portions, garnishes and other issues.
The management teams then meet prior to daily service with the culinary staff, walking through the restaurants to look at the food and serving areas (referred to as “platforms”) with a customer’s perspective in mind. “We reinforce the idea that most of us eat with our eyes first. So we ask them, in terms of the food and the presentation, what issues are important to you as a customer?
“Each team servicing each platform (service area) then inspects the sample plates which are set-up for presentation to the guests.
“We go over ingredients, so that the team members are well informed. These include the basic spices and flavor combinations. They need to be the experts. They are on stage and have the most direct communication with and impressions for the customer who may have questions,” explains Wilcots. Additionally, each display plate is identified with a menu card that quickly, yet descriptively, identifies the menu item to the customer.
Just as some trendy commercial restaurants with open kitchens have begun using headsets to communicate orders, UCLA too has moved into the high-tech communication arena. The hostess or host wears a head set to communicate guest counts (every 15 minutes) to the platform leaders. The leaders hear those counts and know from past experience and forecasting what the percentage take is going to be on certain items. That way they can produce more or less product so it is “just in time for the guest, hot or cold,” says Wilcots. “And we don’t compromise the integrity of the presentation at all.”
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In all, UCLA has dedicated more than $300,000 in time and training dollars throughout this academic year to this effort. There’s no spring break for this culinary staff! While students were basking in the sun, 500 foodservice employees were participating in this spring’s 40–hour culinary/customer service training program.
“It’s more important for us to provide them with the tools to be successful in their areas,” says Wilcots, than to offer extra time off. “If we don’t provide the tools, they won’t be successful in their positions, and we won’t be able to provide the level of customer service we want to offer.”
“If a garnish is at 12:00 on the first plate, it should be at 12:00 throughout that day’s service. It’s important for the last customer who enters our restaurant to get the same type and quality of service that the first customer did,” he adds.
Pride of ownership is a critical issue in presentation. Teresa Kramer, executive chef of research and development for Aramark, believes the head chef should watch every plate that goes out the door because “it’s your name on the plate.”
“People don’t generally think about the half dozen cooks back in the kitchen who are also preparing the meal,” she adds. “They tend to think only of the executive chef as being responsible.
“You have to be there to be hands-on, to check details and to taste everything.”
“Plate design in catering is becoming an increasingly important part of operations. As a chef, you have to make sure you have the most control over plating and presentation,” adds Koehler.
Kramer readily admits that really knowing how to put a plate together comes only after years of experience. She, and the other chefs interviewed, find inspiration by reading foodservice trade publications constantly, traveling and frequenting produce markets, eating out and observing other chefs.
“You name it—everything is food for thought,” says Kramer. So, move over Michelangelo. Let the real artists get to work.