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A FRESH Point of View: Perfect Plating

It’s often said we eat with our eyes first, something that chefs learn early on. That’s why the plate you’re served in a restaurant, especially a nicer one,  often looks more appealing and “finished” than the very same meal you might make at home.

There’s a definite art to creating pretty plates, but fortunately many of the tricks take little effort, just a little planning:

  1. Create your menu with an eye to how it will look on the plate. Chefs do this all the time. You don’t want all brown or all white foods; the prettiest plates have at least two or three colors. By the same token, consider shapes, textures and cooking techniques. An all-fried menu, or a bunch of servings in similar, boxy shapes, will look dull. So, for instance, if you’re serving round new potatoes, try slicing carrots into long, thin batons.
  2. Have a plating plan. In culinary school, chefs actually learn to draw sketches of plates, both to ensure attractiveness and to be sure the plates are consistent from guest to guest, even if different cooks are dishing them out. You don’t have to go that far, but consider where each food will go on the plate, and make sure you’re not planning too much. It will also make things go more smoothly when you’re actually cooking.
  3. Choose simple china or dishes. Most foods look better on a blank canvas – in this case, a white plate. If your china or everyday dishes seem too “busy” for a special-occasion dinner, you can consider renting plates from a party-rental store. Or look at a restaurant-supply store or a discount store for the simplest plates you can fine. Big, square white plates look modern and give you lots of design room and “white space” to make meals look restaurant-special. Don’t worry so much about being matchy-matchy; a clear glass salad plate with a white dinner plate will look just fine.
  4.  Odd numbers look better than even. Just like in art or in centerpieces, an odd number of components looks more interesting and less static than an even number. For instance, a trio of mini-crabcakes, a pile of five meatballs, seven slices of tenderloin – you get the idea.
  5. Use warm plates for entrees, cold plates for salads. It helps regulate the temperature of food for a longer period, and is especially helpful when you’re trying to plate for 8 guests by yourself in a small home kitchen. Simply put salad plates in the fridge or freezer an hour or two before serving; oven-proof dishes can be warmed in the oven briefly, or simply placed near the stove to pick up radiant heat.
  6. Think carefully about garnish. Too many can look messy, and if you choose something just for looks, it might not complement the meal. However, garnishes are especially important if your meal is somewhat monochromatic – steak, potatoes and salad. In that case, a dollop of sauce or a sprinkle of chives or parsley will help liven up the plate.
  7. Use a squeeze bottle for sauces and drizzles. It’s a much easier way to control that squiggle of pesto, flavored oil or balsamic vinegar.
  8. Add height to the plate. This doesn’t mean you have to build a tower of food; just create one element that’s higher than the others. This can be as simple as serving a molded mound of rice (experiment with several glasses or cups until you get the shape you want) or layering asparagus spears over the tenderloin. Just don’t go overboard; if it’s too precarious, you could spill it on the way to the table, and your guests won’t know how to start eating.
  9. Sliced meats look more professional.  Evenly slice that filet, chicken breast or piece of tuna, then fan out slightly on the plate. You can also lean the meat against the rice or potatoes, or layer it on a bed of polenta or greens.
  10. For desserts, don’t forget finishing touches. Sift powdered sugar or cinnamon over a slice of tiramisu, grate white and dark chocolate over a simple dish of ice cream or a slice of cake, or use that squeeze bottle to drizzle a bit of chocolate syrup or cajeta over the plate. A trio of fresh, sugared berries and a mint or basil leaf dresses up many desserts easily.
  11. At the last minute, clean up the plate. Use the corner of a damp tea towel to wipe up any drips, smudges  or spills.