Theory of Making Food Look Good
November 28, 2010 7:16 PM   Subscribe

Is there such a thing as a theoretical guide to making food look good? I see a lot of instructions for, for example, sculpting a carrot into fanciful garnishes, but that's not what I'm looking for. I'd like a more from-first-principles approach that gives a more subtle, less visibly fussed-over effect, and can be more easily generalized to jazz up any dish I already know.

For example, if this guy would ever explain this "centre height" he keeps trying to achieve, I'd probably like that.
posted by d. z. wang to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
There's a ton of information available on this, though I've never seen anything like "first principles". The term you want to google is "Plating food".
posted by mhoye at 7:21 PM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

You can also search for Mise en place, which is merely the French term for 'plating food and making it look all prettylike'.
posted by spinifex23 at 7:33 PM on November 28, 2010

You might like to check out this book -- "Working the Plate" by food stylist Christopher Styler (I know!). Disclaimer that I don't have it personally, but I think it has tips that could be used for normal plates as well as food styling tips for photography. It's been on my wish list for a while, but I haven't gotten around to obtaining it! A friend of mine worked with him on a couple of TV shows though and learned a lot about plating.
posted by hansbrough at 7:35 PM on November 28, 2010

eGullet has an article on plating that might suit.
posted by stet at 7:36 PM on November 28, 2010

Mise en place is about the preparation of ingredients in the kitchen, rather than the presentation of the final dish.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:37 PM on November 28, 2010 [13 favorites]

That's incorrect: "Mise en place" is the preparation of a chef's station for a day's efficient work, not plating the food they will be cooking.
posted by mhoye at 7:52 PM on November 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Or also, as they say in french "J'aurait du clicker le preview."
posted by mhoye at 7:52 PM on November 28, 2010 [6 favorites]

Either way, my apologies. I shall leave this thread to the pros :)
posted by spinifex23 at 7:54 PM on November 28, 2010

FWIW I think the linked style to be silly. How do you eat the fish neatly if it's balanced atop a bowl of peas? Or eat the peas without knocking the whole thing over?

It's good when food is beautifully styled, but it should also be functional.

You might start with noticing how foods are plated in restaurants (whether that's visiting restaurants or just looking at the copious photos of restaurant food you see around the web). Those dishes are actually intended to be eaten in an enjoyable manner. As opposed to the illustrations you see in food magazines and on TV. Which can be inspirational, but remember, food is for eating first and looking pretty second.

(Says the woman who was recently served unpeeled shrimp atop pasta with cream sauce. So pretty, but how the hell did they expect me to eat that in a polite and ladylike manner?)
posted by Sara C. at 12:47 AM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's a few tips on this in Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, in the chapter called How to Cook Like the Pros. Not very in-depth, but might be worth skimming through for ideas and search terms. (Also the rest of the book is hell of entertaining, too.)
posted by Cimrmanova at 2:38 AM on November 29, 2010

Response by poster: Sara C., yes!

Something that bothered me about all these examples was how primped they looked. I feel like I'm looking at something out of a modern art museum when I see a little dab of food and a few drops of sauce sitting on a big white plate.

I'd like a much more functional, casual result, if possible.
posted by d. z. wang at 3:12 AM on November 29, 2010

I think for home cooks, garnishes really do take it up a notch. Add a spiral of sour cream or some other relevant, contrasting-color sauce onto a bowl of soup. Use a ketchup bottle to dab some dots or swirls of sauce on the plate before adding the entree or dessert.Sprinkle some chopped parsley on top of whatever. It seems like lots of entrees look better with some kind of crunchy thing arranged on top, whether it's finely sliced leeks or french-fried onions.

I see a lot of cooks on reality tv cooking competitions plating food by using a cookie-cutter-like apparatus. A blob of whatever dropped by a spoon doesn't look that great, but if you smoosh it into a perfect circle or rectangle it looks awesome. Even better, lean something else on it at an angle afterward.
posted by vytae at 7:33 AM on November 29, 2010

I don't have resources to recommend to you, but I can offer some advice about general ways to jazz up any dish you currently make. More like "accessorizing for dinner" than how to primp your seared tuna. Nothing involving restaurant-like style, just little things I tend to do on the nights my husband and I are having wine with dinner, or when my mom's staying with us for the week and I want her to think I know how to cook, or whatever.

Things that are "family style" - i.e. brought to the table as a single dish to be scooped out by each person - are inherently not primped but you can make them look good. Not so much if you bring it to the table in a pot; you've got to get some nice serving bowls and utensils. Same theory then follows for that serving bowl as for any individual dish you plate out.

1. garnishes
a. useless garnishes are kind of annoying
b. tasty garnishes can be awesome
c. anything you'd normally serve with the dish can be turned into a garnish.
- cheese on pasta or chili; fresh scallions or herbs
- a dish like soup, or a casserole: pick an ingredient that defines the dish, and save out a small amount when you're cooking, slice it thin and arrange on top at/near the end. Example, mushroom slices on top of the lasagna (also handy for baking a meat and a veg lasagna and having something that signals which is which); thin (raw) zucchini slices on hot squash soup. (here's where the books about how to turn a zucchini slice into a curl would come in handy, but that's beyond my skill)

2. arranging things in a bowl (a multi-part single dish, like salad, pasta, stir fry)
a. mixing things all together to be more or less homogenous is ideal for making sure everybody gets "goodies" and "base" but is not particularly aesthetic. It's the difference between tossed salad and Cobb salad with the slices of egg and avocado and ham and blue cheese all lined up on top of the lettuce... gorgeous, but the last guy through line, or for a single serving the last few bites, are going to be plain lettuce. Pick your battles.
b. However, just do it. Don't be shy. Rank your ingredients from most boring to prettiest, and layer them in to put the pretty stuff on top. Pasta on bottom, sauce with mixed vegetables in the middle, sliced grilled chicken on top, two rings of bell pepper saved out of hte sauce to put on top with a basil leaf as garnish.
c. see 3.

3. arranging things on a plate (multiple dishes set on a plate to serve, not family style)
a. you can plate up the salads or pasta as above, making the serving look good by putting the pretty colorful fresh interesting-looking ingredient on top. And/or the delicious-looking cheese sauce on top or around the edge
b. plan your plate physics to make sure anything liquidy-runny-oozy is going to be in the center and not dripping the sweet fruity salad dressing downhill on the slope of the china into the garlic mashed potatoes.
c. It's much easier to make one thing or three things look good, than two things. Chinese restaurants get around this by having long narrow plates with the sculpted pile of rice at one end and the sea of orange beef at the other end, but on a round plate, that's more difficult. Aim for three, even if it means reserving the broccoli out of the beef-with-broccoli to set up separately.
d. any dish that is items rather than bulk, consider how those items are placed. Put the broccoli spears in a fan, or the asparagus all parallel, or the slices of ham in an offset stack.

4. menu planning
It's a sad truth, not everything can be breathtakingly gorgeous. If you're trying to impress, pick a dish that fancies up well. Look for:
- interesting-looking ingredients
- dishes that get served with a sauce
- compactly served dishes that are not likely to slop all over the place or ooze out into other dishes
- dishes that are assembled in layers (see 2) when serving
- lots of color variety!! color is key - salads are great for adding color, a bit of red pepper or bright-colored berry; within a dish (fill a winter squash half with sugared cranberries) or between dishes (the classic Thanksgiving plate photos show a white, a brown, a green, an orange, and a red)

Okay. In retrospect, if you're asking this question, you're probably at least as with-it as I am, but I've written this, may as well post it.
posted by aimedwander at 7:50 AM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've asked my little brother - a professional cook with a strong desire to eventually become a chef - this question a few times, and he's suggested two books in particular. On Cooking is a standard textbook in chef schools around the country. Yes, it's a bit expensive, but it's a textbook, and it's one of the best out there. The second is What's a Cook To Do by James Peterson, a rather simple little book with a lot of tips and techniques. In addition, Nathan Myhrvold has a book coming out December 1, entitled Modernist Cuisine, which is supposed to make a lot of waves. It's coming out of the molecular gastronomy school of thought: precise measurement (ingredients are often measured in ml), experimentation to perfection, rigorously planned menus, etc. Its enormous price is due to the fact that it has 2200 pages in five volumes.

Also worth looking at is Hervé This' work - he's one of the pioneers of molecular gastronomy, and while he tends to focus more on taste, texture, and smell than he does on appearance, one can find a lot of useful information in his books.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 9:24 AM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Reading art textbooks - especially ones that focus on form and/or color - probably isn't a bad idea either.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 9:29 AM on November 29, 2010

In general, I would suggest looking at Jamie Oliver's cookbooks. Not only are the recipes themselves pretty darn awesome, but his photographer (David Loftus?) is amazing, and the food is presented very attractively (but at the same time, in an "everyday" kind of way).
posted by purlgurly at 9:31 AM on November 29, 2010

Oops - link is here.
posted by purlgurly at 9:32 AM on November 29, 2010

Watch some of Bittman's Minimalist videos of the NY Times. He is the epitome of not fussing over things in the kitchen yet he spends one or two extra seconds making things look good on the plate — usually, to my eye, by picking the correct platter/plate to serve it upon. This is what I do at home and I keep bugging Mrs. Paris to find me more platters which will compliment that approach. (She's good at the thrift store/eBay thing. I do more of the cooking at home.)

Just keep looking around too, try: and Cookbooks by Tessa Kiros, e.g. For more adventure, look at Ad Hoc at Home. Believe me, when you put Potato Pavé on a plate, you are bound to impress. (Although, oddly enough, the customer image showing on Amazon right now for that very thing is unimpressive. Why? I would say because the garnish is heavy, it clashes with the plate and these are potatoes which are square — line 'em up! And as someone noted above, these will look better plated, instead of served family style.

I've taken a shine to cooking more in the last two years and the one thing I have learned, aside form how to follow a recipe is, in the kitchen, things can and often should be handled with gusto but be gentle when it comes to putting those same things on the plate.
posted by Dick Paris at 4:58 PM on November 29, 2010

Oh, and tall food? Stay away from that. Mrs. Paris, raised in France, who I often joke should run a consulting firm called Reality Services, considers attempts to make food more interesting which also make it awkward to eat gracefully to be a supremely bad idea.
posted by Dick Paris at 5:13 PM on November 29, 2010

Something that bothered me about all these examples was how primped they looked.

You might appreciate what Julia Child said about nouvelle cuisine: "It's so beautifully arranged on the plate — you know someone's fingers have been all over it."
posted by Lexica at 7:41 PM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

The very most fundamental tip I learned was to make all the food on the plate different colors. A plate that's totally yellow or red or whatever isn't going to look all that varied (or be all that healthy). Green makes a huge difference. And that can apply to individual dishes as well.
posted by lhall at 1:12 PM on December 2, 2010

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