Kathy Maister's Start Cooking

Seven Ways to Present Food Like a Chef

posted in Around the Kitchen by Emily Chapelle

If you’re a startcooking.com regular, no doubt you’ve become more comfortable with basic cooking techniques. Now you’re making sweet and sour meatballs, tomato olive quesadillas, and know how to stir fry. Plus, you’re no longer wondering what mesclun is! Maybe you’re even thinking of inviting friends over to show off those new culinary skills.

Part of serving great food is presentation: like the Salad Nicoise pictured above, it should appeal to your mouth, nose and eyes. (Don’t they deserve a feast, too?) You don’t have to be a trained chef to learn the basics of plating, which is the art of presenting food in an attractive way. Don’t worry, it’s not about making butter sculptures or radish animals (yet!). There seven simple ways to present your meals like a pro.

  1. Set the table properly. Your day-to-day meals might be free-for-alls, but if you’ve got guests coming over, it’s nice to have the knives and forks in the right places.

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  2. Choose your plates wisely. Make sure your serving plates are big enough to let each food item stand out, but small enough that the portions don’t look tiny.

    Kathy used a square white plate above for serving this Portobello and Goat Cheese dish, making it stand out on a bed of sauce. Many chefs prefer white dishes, so the food “pops” visually, but you can try another color. Dishes with bold patterns can detract from the food. If you’re serving something hot, pre-heat your plates by placing them in the oven (if they are oven-safe) or on top of the toaster. If you’re serving cold foods, cool your dishes in the fridge or freezer for a bit. You can always make the plate look a little nicer by placing the food on a leaf of Boston lettuce.

  3. Read the clock! A foolproof way to arrange food on a plate is to place the carbohydrate (rice, pasta, bread, etc.) at “11 o’clock,” the vegetables at “2 o’clock,” and the protein at “6 o’clock” from the diner’s point of view.

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    This will also help you portion correctly, if you remember that vegetables should cover about half of the plate, starch one fourth, and protein one fourth.

  4. Be odd. Don’t be strange, but things generally look more interesting when they’re in sets of odd numbers, rather than even numbers.

    So if you’re serving shrimp or stuffed mushrooms, put five on each plate, rather than six. Don’t worry about counting out peas though!

  5. Play with Height. This Chicken Stirfry with Broccoli looks more interesting because of the high mound of rice sitting next to it.

    Just like with centerpieces, it’s good to have a little bit of height, but don’t overdo it or your guests won’t know how to proceed! If you have a mound of mashed potatoes (mid-height), you may want to lean your pork chop against it so that it is standing up (high), with a row of snow peas (low) in front. Or, top some rice (low) with sliced grilled chicken (cut into a few diagonal slices, and fan them out) (mid-height) and cross asparagus over top of it (high).

  6. Play with color and texture. Even if you’re just serving Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, a green paper napkin can make this simple meal look really special!

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    If you’re serving up a pesto dish, which has a lot of green in it, you might want to pair it with something red (the complementary color) like tomatoes or red peppers. A dish of white fish, water chestnuts, and rice would look really boring, so make sure to punch it up! Similarly, mix up the texture. If you made a smooth vegetable soup, serve it with a carrot stick and a celery stick (maybe an inner one with some of the delicious little greens still attached) across the top of the bowl. If you made a (smooth) steak, top it with some (crumbly) feta cheese or walnuts.

    Kathy’s Pear and Blue Cheese Salad (pictured above) is a great example of a mouthwatering mix of textures.

  7. Garnish appropriately. Don’t lose sight of the recipe you made in the first place! Any garnishes on the plate should be edible and should enhance the flavor of the main dishes. Grilled salmon might be served with a lemon wedge, for example.

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    Garnishes, like the cut-up fruit with the fried egg below, are also a great way to add color or texture.

Be sure to add parsley to your weekly shopping list. It not only tastes great, it is also a lovely garnish for just about everything!

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9 Comments

KGWagner said:

Nice job!

I notice you didn’t mention those trays with the handy little separated compartments, like your better cafeterias and prisons use. So… those are out of the question, right?

spud Larkin said:

this is the first thing I tell everyone, “the click method”, height and odds, and it is so nice to see other people use this methods,

Yours eyes, should enjoy the meal as much as your tongue…

Spud

Mary said:

When I waited tables (more years ago than I like to remember) we were taught to put the protein at 6:00 on the theory that it was easier to cut a piece of meat directly in front of you rather than have to work over something else.

Kathy Maister said:

KGW – I do love orderly food! Bento boxes are my favorite!

Spud – We do eat with our eyes, which is why I was a better photographer!

Mary – so true!

ellaella said:

Terrific post. It’s so true that we eat first with our eyes.

And it’s not just for company. We need to be good to ourselves. As a single who eats alone about the half the time, I always set a nice place for myself at the table, even if what’s on my plate isn’t picture perfect. It makes me slow down, think about what I’m eating and just enjoy it more.

Kathy Maister said:

Ella I commend you for that! All too often, if I am eating alone, it is with my keyboard instead of a place mat!

thecookntchermom said:

What a great reference site.

I’ll keep your site in mind.

Thanks for all the tips.

Lorraine said:

Your site is a sure cure for a dry mouth, I am drooling! I love the tips on food presentation. Can’t wait to host a party and try them. Thanks!

Steve said:

Nice set of instructions. With this you can add that one should wear a chef’s coat while cooking :)

Thanks,
Steve