My personal cheffing business has pretty much dried up with the economic downturn, but, interestingly, cooking classes continue to hold their own and occasional small parties still offer catering opportunities. Frankly if I could get a bit more catering I’d happily forget about the regular meals I prepared for clients that were my bread (if not butter) a year ago.
Because the catering is for special events, there’s more room to stretch and experiment in the menus, which I like. Also, I get to be on hand when the meals are eaten and so get to observe the reactions to the food. It’s hard to beat standing in the kitchen and listen to “oohs” and “ahs” from the dining room. But perhaps most enjoyable is that when I cater an anniversary or birthday party I get to do “plating.”
Plating is the process of arranging food on a plate to look as appetizing to the eye as it smells to the nose and tastes to the palate. It may seem beside the point to most day-to-day cooks, and it’s certainly been carried beyond the bounds of reasonableness in many expensive restaurants that arrange towers of food rivaling the Chrysler Building. And yet appearance matters.
Presentation and plating, is not a task personal chefs do. Everything we cook gets stuffed in a plastic box and frozen for transport and eventual consumption by our clients. There’s no opportunity to arrange a plate or to add garnishes and sauces in an appealing way.
I started my blog, Seriously Good, back in 2003 and when I got serious about it – and started comparing what I was doing to other Web food publications – I realized that the most popular food blogs featured photographs – sites like Lucullian Delights, La Tartine Gourmande, and Souvlaki for the Soul. What’s more, I realized they featured really good photographs. And not only was the photography technically good, but the food was presented thoughtfully, carefully, artfully, and, yes, tastefully. Meaning you wanted to taste the food just because of how it looked.
So I hauled out my cheap point-n-shoot digital camera and started pointing and shooting. I produced a lot of pictures that could best be described as “table kill.” But I kept at it and eventually learned to use the camera effectively. Then I started learning presentation – the art of making the food look good enough to eat. I’ve always paid attention to presentation, but photography forced me to concentrate on maximizing appearance alone.
I’d always considered colors when planning menus, but I began devoting a good deal of thought to other presentation elements for catered events and even the classes I taught – even to the extent of making drawings of plates. The effort is fun and challenging, but more so, it actually does make my food seem to taste better. And perception is all.
Even when I cook for myself appearance made a difference. A panini with cross-hatch marks from the grill may not actually taste better than one without them, but the marks make the eating experience more enjoyable by evoking memories of panini I ate in Italy. I avoid garnishes that don’t fit the dish -however pretty parsley might be it doesn’t belong on a bowl of ice cream. Typically I use garnishes and sauces that feature ingredients already in the dish. I also avoid overly fussy constructions. Food should look like food, not abstract art.
Tomorrow I’ll be cooking a birthday dinner for my mother. She loves lamb so I’m grilling lamb steaks, which I’ll top with gremolata – a highly flavorful mixture of garlic, parsley, and lemon zest. On the side I’m serving Cauliflower Puree Parmigiano and it will be garnished with celery leaves – a particularly tasty and visually appealing combination – and glazed baby carrots. Dessert will be a simple gingerbread cake dusted with powdered sugar and drizzled with a bourbon/cream sauce. It’s a meal driven by flavor, but with some thought given to appearance, after all, she’ll only turn 85 once and it should be a special meal. A feast for the palate, nose, and eyes.