POSTED ON OCTOBER 5, 2011:
Depeche (à la) Mode
Food fashion leaps from pallet to palate
Plating Design by Ian Van Anglen, Executive Chef Gemma's Woodfire Grill
We must eat. It is an activity recommended each day for all of us. It's a basic necessity that ranks up there with oxygen and water. But we don't meet up after work to pound down a couple of frosty H2Os or make reservations to go somewhere nice to breathe on a Saturday night. The act of eating has evolved into a social activity, a cultural fingerprint; and increasingly, a form of high art.
The idea of 'designing' the way a plate looks isn't new. In fact, even a meal procured via drive-thru is engineered to have a certain look. The McDonaldization of society doesn't have its roots in the communist agenda as it is projected today. It is about measuring and delivering a predictable food product to a massive audience.
American chain restaurants, from Indiana to India, construct meals methodically in a standard presentation. Whether a quarter-pounder or falafel delight, corporate food stylists make sure that the presentation is the same every time for every customer. Plating presentation has become the driving force behind successful marketability.
Autumn Caprese salad: Oven roasted tomatoes Basil & Arugula Salad, House-made Mozzarella, Olive Oil and Balsamic Reduction
Even the sacred U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food pyramid got a facelift this year and mimics what Americans expect plates to look like, whether at home or dining out. The stoic pyramid has given way to the colorful MyPlate -- featuring proteins and starches downstage; fruits and vegetables, upstage; dairy, stage left. The tightly compartmentalized USDA food plate is a paint-by-number for how a plate should appear when making healthy eating choices. So, plating schemes serve several functions; they help with portion control, keep food items separated and act as a template to establish a standard. However, they leave out an important fact -- we eat with our eyes first.
Sliced Hanger Steak over whipped potatoes with wild mushrooms in a red wine demi glace
Creating a beautiful plate is one part sculpture, one part painting and is the ultimate in mixed media. We are consumers and this is the most literal form of art consumption. We can have our beautiful cake and are encouraged to eat it, too. A chef creates every plate knowing it has seven seconds to survive before it is devoured. There is something almost rock and roll about it, like smashing a guitar after the last song is played.
Ian Van Anglen, executive chef of Gemma's Woodfire Grill on Brookside, sat down and waxed poetic on the topic of food fashion.
"A dining experience is exactly that: an experience. It should engage all the senses the moment you walk through the door," says Van Anglen.
"From the flowers by the hostess stand to the candles on the tables, a restaurant can begin to paint a picture before the menu is even seen."
Van Anglen was kind enough to "pull back the curtain" and divulge a few tricks of the trade that can help at-home chefs transform even a Wednesday night meatloaf into a grand production.
Find Your Center
To make a dish appear "fancy", the first trick is to center the elements of the dish. Ignore the stodgy MyPlate illustration, and think of the plate as a stage and direct the actors, e.g. meat, potato, toward center stage. To get that perfectly shaped product, simple tools like circle molds can be picked up at kitchen supply stores for very little dough. The next trick is to elevate the plate by giving it some height. The plate acts as a base, but the food doesn't have to lie down obediently.
The mango crab salad (pictured on cover) is an excellent example of adding height. The building blocks for the surface is a mango agar agar (a vegetarian gelatin) cut into circular shapes. But don't think one is limited to obscure ingredients. Good ol' mashed potatoes make an excellent substrate to vertically place the meat of your choice, providing the plate with a 3-D effect.
RaNDoM is Better
Braised Pork Shoulder, roasted potato over black pepper custard and (to the right) Butter Poached Pork Tenderloin over a savory bread pudding on a cranberry red wine reduction
Think Pollack. Or better yet, think Van Gogh, with swishing lines that look like chaos when inspected closely; but at the perfect angle, the artist's vision is revealed. Simple sauces can pose as fancy flourishes of color and need to be ladled more haphazardly than methodically onto the plate. The desired effect is lost if it looks too 'perfect', so loosen up and feel free to color outside the lines.
In the world of food presentation, the beauty pageant contenders tend to be desserts. Wedding cakes are the star of the sacred event, an expression of a bride's personal style. The look of the wedding cake is second only to the wedding dress; and yet it is still just cake, doomed by man and wife's first bite. Dessert is often treated as just a pretty face, a decoration, with taste taking a backseat to appearance. Chefs tend to use dessert as a medium to be more outlandish and showy.
The Desert is garnished with, from top going clockwise: Candied fig, tuile, cranberry pecan granola, chocolate foam Orange Jelly with chocolate and whipped cream with sugar art
For example, take something as vanilla as, well, vanilla ice cream. By using what lingers in the cabinet -- a few peanuts, some chocolate syrup, maybe even a sprinkle of cereal -- a simple ice cream sundae can transform into a colorful creation (see picture left). It doesn't take special training or fancy kitchen equipment -- it just takes a little imagination and a craving to spice things up.
Play with Your Food
Breakfast, lunch and dinner do not have to be rudimentary experiences to trudge through joylessly. Instead of squirting a pile of ketchup on the plate, try an artful drizzle around the French fries. Get Close Encounters of the Third Kind with your mashed potatoes and build something other-worldly for Sunday dinner.
Challenge the notion of where vegetables should be in relation to the protein. Mix it up and play around with ideas and techniques. Think of the plate as an empty canvas upon which infinite masterpieces can be created three times a day. With a few trade secrets and a little moxie, any amateur gourmet can boldly declare 'bon appétit!'
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