Dinner Parties 101: A Cook’s Canvas

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In culinary school, before being allowed to step foot into the kitchen, there was a lengthy seminar on plating and presentation. The Chef stood before our class, completely deadpan, and held up a powder blue plate. “This is a blue plate.” He made a theatrical pause. “In the culinary field, a blue plate is a cardinal sin. There is no blue food, thus, there will be No. Blue. Plates.” Oops, I thought to myself. My newly engaged sister had just picked out a china pattern that was none other than her favorite color—robin’s egg blue.

He went on to show us two identical plates full of food, one on a white plate and one on the blue. While slightly over-dramatic, Chef Stephan was right. There was something inexplicably less appetizing about the meal on the blue plate. What I had never realized before was that the full dining experience utilizes four out of our five senses—sight being a major factor. Other than the savory smells wafting from the kitchen, the presentation of the meal sets the tone and makes your first big impression.

From that day forward, we learned to play with our food. Our plates were like canvases as we experimented, touched, shaped and resituated everything we served in order to achieve visual texture. As with everything, I learned that timing is key, so it’s crucial to have plating ideas in mind before food is even done. A few other helpful tips I learned:

1) Colorful and patterned china competes with the food for attention. White plates best highlight your meal and give a clean, crisp look to the entire presentation. If you don’t already have a set of white china, several home decor stores such as Pottery Barn and Pier 1 have started carrying “caterer’s boxes” that include 12-piece white dinnerware sets for under $50.

2) While it’s fallen out of favor in restaurant settings, I’ve found a plastic squeeze bottle to be extremely helpful when using sauces and glazes. Adding a vivid green pesto sauce or a rich brown balsamic reduction will help eliminate any negative space and add color and dimension to the dish. The key here is not to get too carried away with elaborate dots, spirals and patterns. Go for the “less is more” approach; use the squeeze bottle to achieve a random drizzle look with more efficiency and less mess. Hint: If your sauce gets too thick and sets in the bottle, stick it in a bowl of hot water for a minute or two.

3) The star of the meal will most likely be your protein. No matter what cut of meat, it should serve as the main height and focus of the dish and shouldn’t be buried under other ingredients or sauces. The sauce should support the meal without overtaking it.

4) While it may seem like common sense, never garnish a meal with something inedible. I once garnished poached apples with cinnamon sticks and the Chef acted as if I put a vial of arsenic right on the plate.

5) And finally, hot food should go on hot plates. Keep your plates heated in a 250 degree oven so your food won’t be lukewarm by the time it reaches your guests.

Happy plating!

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