Components of an artistic plate design
Today’s most successful chefs are multi-talented. And I’m not just talking about TV or world famous chefs. Our industry has changed massively over the past few decades. Today’s best chefs are successful businessmen with the financial savvy to manage their food costs, control operational expenses, train staff how to repeat what they themselves do, interact with socially adept guests, and produce quality cuisine. But it is cooking great food and practicing the art of plate presentation which most of us enjoy the most.
Of all the work that we do, the art of plate presentation is one of the most intriguing. Creating a visually stunning “picture on the plate” and hearing “Wow! That’s beautiful!” brings a great sense of creative satisfaction…so long as the next comment is “It tastes even better than it looks!” Visual beauty without fantastic flavor is garbage.
Today’s chefs are so talented, so artistic, so visually creative that presentations run the full gamut of super simple to very complex. And each restaurant will have its own creative style which is often defined by its cuisine. For instance, many of the presentations below are geared toward the high-end establishment and are too complex for the average restaurant, but perhaps would still work for the chef’s special, the one place where a chef can truly highlight his/her talents and train staff the etiquette of plate design.
So, what makes for a great presentation? How do you go about designing a plate? What are the do’s and don’ts? Here are things which I’ve found helpful. The first step is to try to visualize the plate in your mind. What do you want it to look like? Is there a design idea you want to use as a template? Have you seen a presentation you’d like to mimic using your food instead? For me, it usually starts with the concept of lines, arcs, circles and/or triangles.
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The Art of Plate Presentation – Lines, Arcs, Circles and Triangles
Simple geometric shapes are the “skeleton” of plate design, the base upon which the flesh is added. Consider all the images which follow and how all plate presentations can be defined by simple geometric shapes: lines, arcs, circles, etc. Being able to “see” the underlying patterns (skeleton) of a layout make it easier to visualize the end result, and to play with variations of design before you ever put food to plate.
I always start my plates by thinking of the lines, arcs and patterns that may work, often using my hands to draw an imaginary design on an empty plate to help me visualize it before I even start adding food.
These presentations takes full advantage of white space.
Two lines can be used in a variety of ways to create stunning presentations. Sometimes used as 2 parallel lines, somes crossing each other to form an “X”.
Two Vertical Lines
Horizontal lines on the plate are a great way to really feature the full details of what you are displaying because this perspective gives the fullest view of what’s being presented.
Two Lines – Crossing (like an X)
What’s interesting about this design matrix is that it is more interesting, more visually appealing, if the crossing point is off-center, especially if the starting and ending points of each line is also random (i.e. not side by side).
Three Vertical Lines
This style works especially well if you are plating a trio.
Arcs (affectionately called a “swoosh”) add fluidity and a sense of motion to a presentation. If your design looks too “hard” or too “blocky” try adding an arc or two.
Arc & Line
A single arc and a single line. This design brings both fluidity (the arc) and stability or strength (the line) to a presentation. The center image is a horizontal line inside an arc.
Circle and Line
Similar to Arc & Line, this offers both a soft and a hard component to the plate. Typically the circle is off-center to the left.
Chef Chris Nugent
Some plates look like chaos, but a closer look reveals structure. This is one of the hardest plating styles to successfully pull off…if its wrong then all you have is a mess on a plate. Balance, white space, and a focal point is the key.
The classic 3 component (starch, veg, protein) design: 10 o’clock, 2 o’clock, 6 o’clock. But also used for more avante garde presentations.
A classic presentation is to center everything, making a tower in the center of the plate, stacking all the components, and then putting a “mote” of sauce around it all. This presentation style also gives great height (elevation) to the design.
A more modern approach is to place items slightly off-center. Being a little off-center creates tension and interest for the eye.
The plate design below is beautifully intricate yet somehow appearing to be simple. Complex plate designs are difficult to pull off for multiple reasons. First, too much on the plate can quickly turn into confusion. It takes a skilled eye to make complexity aesthetically balanced. Second, intricacy takes time to plate correctly…do you have time to plate this dish correctly during service? Third, very few people have the eye and the hand to plate complex designs correctly…so you will probably have to create every plate yourself during service.
Breaking the Rules – Decorating the Rim
The old rule of plating was to keep everything off the rim. The rim acted as a frame for the plate and the Chef would yell at you if you had even a speckle on the rim. Today, the rim is often still considered to be a border…but it is a border to be played with!
Chef Vicky Lau
via TheArtof Plating.com
Other Components of Plate Design
A well designed plate will have a sense of balance. “Balance” doesn’t necessarily mean symmetry. A beautiful presentation which appears to be chaotic can actually have balance and a hidden structure, whereas a chaotic mess on the plate is simply that…a mess on the plate…it lacks balance and structure. Balance means that you look at a plate and it makes sense, you understand it, you may even think “wow! that’s nice!”
But a plate that is confusing to the eye, or is distracting because there is either no focal point or too many focal points, are lacking balance. The art of plate presentation can be simple…or very complicated!
The focal point of the dish is the spot which the eye goes to first, the item which draws your attention. Be aware of the way your eye moves around the dish. What does it notice first? Where does it go next? What is the last thing your eye goes to? Know what your focal point of the dish is, and make sure that the focal point is also the item on the dish which you want to highlight. Techniques which create a focal point include color, elevation, and placement. Bright or contrasting colors draw the eye. Elevation draws the eye. And where you place something on the plate either accentuates or “hides” it. Use any or all of these to create the spot you want to be your focal point.
Additionally, we read from left to right, our eyes are used to moving that way, it feels natural to us. So your focal point should usually be either near the center or left of center. This certainly isn’t set in stone, it’s simply a general practice which is easier to work with…however, sometimes the focal point can be on the right, it is just a little more difficult to achieve that sense of balance.
Know the Clock
Chefs will often describe a dish using a clock for placement. The front (bottom) of the plate is 6 o’clock, you can deduce the rest. In the image below the servers would be told, “The front scallop gets placed at 5 o’clock in front of the guest.” Part of the visual appeal is the angle at which the plate is viewed. Placing the plate before the guest with that scallop at 6 o’clock changes the entire presentation!
Negative or White Space
Leave some areas of the plate empty. This helps to “frame” the items you are presenting, drawing the eye to what is important. If the entire plate is filled with food then there is nothing to see, nothing to look at, because it is just one big mass.
Chef Vicky Lau
Giving items on the plate elevation or height brings visual dimension to the design, making it “3-D” rather than flat. The trick is to plate the elevated element on the plate in such a way that the design flows and it doesn’t hide other elements. The typical spots to place your elevated component are usually in the center or back left. Placing it at the front of the plate (6 o’clock) rarely works because then it hides the rest of the dish.
Making a dish of completely similar colors can be challenging because if all the colors are the same hue then the dish can become one dimensional and boring. But, adding a small amount of opposing color to an otherwise “same-hued” dish can make it stand-out such as this one by Chef Alain Ducasse.
Most of the time you will use contrasting colors to add “pop” to the presentation. With the exception of soups & salads, browns and golds (the colors of seared proteins) dominate most plates. So adding red, green, or purple brings contrast and interest to the design.
Play with different shaped plates. If you are having difficulty getting an aesthetic design for your dish, try a different shaped plate! Sometimes the same design on a round plate is horrible but on a rectangular plate it’s perfect.
Same as above. Sometimes moving your dish to a larger or smaller plate is all that’s needed to help re-focus the final design.
The general consensus is that white plates tend to work best. Having said that, black plates with bright colored foods look awesome! If you use colored plates just be sure that you can still see the food. Dark food on dark plates is no good. Also, overly designed plates with lots of color, flowers, designs, whatever will detract from your food and make artistic presentations more difficult. These plates would be impossible to do any design on…the plate itself is the presentation.
Small, subtle garnishes can really bring a plate to life.
Take a Photo
I’ve found that if I take a photo of a dish that I can then evaluate it from a more objective perspective. It’s easier to look at a photo and see how you can tweak the presentation to add more balance. You’ll see where you need more or less white space, where a splash of color is needed, or what components are distracting.
In a busy kitchen we usually don’t have the luxury to spend that additional time to photograph a dish when developing a presentation. But if you have a very special dish you’re working on then taking a photo can help finalize your plate design. It is one of the “secret tools” in the art of plate presentation.
By visual texture I mean different shapes, textures, heights, densities. In this image you have the denseness of the lobster, the green puree is soft yet stable enough to mound, the orange foam is light and airy. The pea shoots add a certain whimsicalness to the plate, and the morels offer visual complexity. Lastly, the small granules on the right add a finishing touch of finesse and a sense of “crunch” to the plate.
Inspirational Sources for Plate Presentation
The internet provides access to a host of inspirational sites for plating ideas. Here are a few of my favorites:
What are your favorite sources of plating inspiration?
Who are some of your favorite artistic chefs?
What are your thoughts on the art of plate presentation?