Arrangement on the Plate

Until recent years, plated main courses followed a standard pattern: meat or fish item at the front of the plate (closest to the diner), vegetable and starch items at the rear.

This arrangement is still the most commonly used because it is one of the simplest and most convenient. Nevertheless, many chefs are eager to display their creativity with imaginative plating presentations.

A style popular with today's chefs is to stack everything in one multilayered tower in the center of the plate.When used with restraint, this can make an effective and impressive plating. Often, however, it is carried to extremes, and customers are faced with the job of carefully deconstructing a towering pile of food and rearranging the items on the plate so they can begin eating. Some chefs like this style so much that they use it for nearly everything on the menu. Perhaps it works best for small dishes, such as some appetizers and the small portions of a tasting menu. It is important to keep the convenience and comfort of the diner in mind when plating.

Today's plating styles are many and varied.The following descriptions are examples of popular plating styles, and they serve as starting points for countless variations. The accompanying photos, as well as the remaining photos accompanying recipes throughout the text, show additional style variations and interpretations.

• The classic arrangement: main item in front, vegetables, starch items, and garnish at the rear.

• The main item alone in the center of the plate, sometimes with a sauce or simple garnish.

• The main item in the center, with vegetables distributed randomly around it, sometimes with a sauce underneath.

• The main item in the center, with neat piles of vegetables carefully arranged around it in a pattern.

• A starch or vegetable item heaped in the center; the main item sliced and leaning up against it; additional vegetables, garnish, and/or sauce on the plate around the center items.

• Main item,vegetable and starch accompaniments, and other garnish stacked neatly one atop the other in the center of the plate. Sauces or additional garnish may be placed around the outside.

• Vegetable in center of plate, sometimes with sauce;main item (in slices, medallions, small pieces, etc.) arranged around it toward the outside of the plate.

• Slices of the main item shingled on a bed of vegetables or a purée of vegetables or starch, with, perhaps, additional garnish to one side or around.

• Asymmetrical or random-looking arrangements that don't seem to follow any pat-tern.These often create the impression that the food was rushed to the dining room the instant it was cooked,without thought to the design. Of course, to be effective, these arrangements must be carefully thought out in advance.

The following guidelines will help you plate attractive, appealing food, no matter what plating style you are using.

1. Keep food off the rim of the plate.

This guideline means, in part, selecting a plate large enough to hold the food without it hanging off the edge. In general, the rim should be thought of as the frame for the food presentation.

Some chefs like to decorate this frame with a sprinkling of spice or chopped herbs or dots of a sauce.When tastefully done, this can enhance the appeal of the plate but,if overdone,it can make the plate look unattractive. Some restaurants got into the habit of throwing some badly chopped parsley over every plate that left the kitchen. Over the years, this practice has been so carelessly done, and— worse—so many customers have soiled their sleeves on sauced rims, that decorating the rim is falling out of fashion.

2. Arrange the items for the convenience of the customer.

Put the best side of the meat forward.The customer should not have to turn the item around to start on it.The bony or fatty edge of the steak, the back side of the half-duckling, the boniest parts of the chicken pieces, and so on, should face away from the customer.

Often the most imaginative platings are the most inconvenient.Tall, precarious towers of food are difficult to eat, and the customer may have to rearrange the food before eating.

3. Keep space between items, unless, of course, they are stacked on one another.

Don't pile everything together in a jumbled heap. Each item should have its own identity.This is, of course, related also to selecting the right plate size.

Even when items are stacked, this should be done neatly so that each item is identifiable.

4. Maintain unity.

Basically, there is unity when the plate looks like one meal that happens to be made up of several items rather than like several unrelated items that just happen to be on the same plate.

Create a center of attention and relate everything to it.The meat is generally the center of attention and is often placed front and center. Other items are placed around and behind it so as to balance it and keep the customer's eyes centered rather than pulled off the edge of the plate.

Visual balance is similar to the balance of flavors discussed on page 77. In that discussion, we introduced the concept of primary flavors and supporting flavors. The primary flavors, you recall, are those of the main ingredients, and the supporting or secondary flavors are those of additional ingredients that are selected to enhance, harmonize with, or contrast with the primary flavors.Visual design works in a similar way.The main item on the plate is the primary design element. Other items, including side dishes and garnishes, are supporting design elements. Each item should enhance, harmonize with, or contrast with the main element and each other in a pleasing way.

5. Make every component count.

Garnishes are not added just for color. Sometimes they are needed to balance a plate by providing an additional element.Two items on a plate often look unbalanced, but adding a simple sprig of parsley completes the picture.

On the other hand, don't add unnecessary elements, especially unnecessary inedible garnishes. In many or even most cases, the food is attractive and colorful without garnish, and adding it clutters the plate and increases your food cost as well.

In any case, it is usually best to add nothing to the plate that is not intended to be eaten. Before you place the parsley alongside the fish fillet or plant a bushy sprig of rosemary in the mashed potatoes, first consider if the plate needs an extra item.

If it does, then consider whether or not it wouldn't be better to add something edible to enhance the other foods with its taste and texture as well as its appearance.

6. When using a sauce or gravy, add it attractively.

Sauces are essential parts of many dishes, but sometimes ladling sauce all over an item hides colors and shapes. If the item is attractive by itself, let the customer see it. Ladle the sauce around or under it, or possibly covering only part of it, as with a band of sauce across the center. Always think of the sauce as part of the overall design of the plate.

7. Keep it simple.

As you have heard before, simplicity is more attractive than overworked, contrived arrangements and complicated designs. Unusual patterns are occasionally effective, but avoid making the food look too cute or too elaborate.

One of the simplest plating styles can also be one of the most attractive if it is carefully done—that is, placing only the meat or fish item and its sauce, if any, in the center of the plate, and serving vegetable accompaniments in separate dishes. This method is often used in restaurants to simplify service in the kitchen. However, it is usually best to use this method for only some of the menu items in order to avoid monotony.

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