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The Art of Plating

The visuals of a good meal are often overlooked. What goes into making a meal truly pop?

By John Salloum

acai bowl
Photo By Amanda Hess

There’s a saying that “we eat with our eyes before our mouths,” yet the importance of plating in the culinary world is quite overlooked. Our first interaction with our food is through sight when we see our dish exit the kitchen and make its way to our table. Oftentimes, we have waited so long for our food that we immediately dig in the moment the plate is placed in front of us, disregarding how it looks entirely. We ignore the work behind making a dish look spectacular. 

I am not suggesting that all types of food need to be works of art – you won’t see McDonald’s ensuring every burger looks picture-perfect like in their advertisements. This applies to higher-end restaurants that pride themselves on the artistry of their cuisine. For them, a lot goes into plating a dish properly. 

Let’s start by examining the techniques that help chefs cultivate their vision. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing fine dining, you’ve likely noticed the unique way that sauces are plated. This is called smearing, a method in which the sauce is smeared across the plate with a spoon or brush. This creates a layer of depth when you place the dish’s main component, such as a meat, on top of it. 

This practice goes hand in hand with the rule of thirds, a plating technique that suggests the focal point of your dish be positioned to the left or right rather than the center. This rule also suggests that you shouldn’t overcrowd your plate; instead, emphasize the main ingredients. Adding depth and height can go a long way with garnishes or sauces pooled at the bottom. 

As for color, there are two options food-artisans tend to choose from. The first is to let your plate act as a canvas hosting a variety of colors that voice a dish’s complex mixture of flavors. The other is to opt for a monochromatic tone, which makes different textures a surprise to consumers who expect only a singular flavor from the display’s static visual. 

While this may sound good on paper, spending a substantial amount of time plating food can seem impractical, especially when cooking and preparing has already taken some time. Cooking is a cruel form of art, in a way. Chefs spend their entire lifetimes perfecting recipes and honing in on their vision of how a dish should be constructed from sight to smell to taste, only to last a mere few minutes before the next customer comes in, hungry for more. 

So why is plating so important? To create a good experience, you need to stimulate all senses of the body at the same time. It’s not enough for a dish to taste good – it must be a complete experience. That’s why Michelin-star restaurants offer a multi-course meal instead of a quick, one-course, typical dining experience. Each plate is artistically crafted to be its own journey, its own masterpiece in culinary excellence. Its own artwork. 


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