When plating food, one of the most important guidelines to pay attention to is the “support”, aka the plate. Visually, your plated food will NOT look the same on two different supports. Different colors, shapes, sizes, etc. create different degrees of interest. The overall quality of each plate and its correlation with the food it supports will define the unity of the culinary design, and its impact on the diner. Supports trick the eye and provide enhancement or deterioration of the food presentation.
What to look for?
As a general rule, your plated presentation will always look better if the food lays on a large, white support. There is a principle associated to this; it’s the principle of “negative” spacing.
Organizing space on a plate is as important as organizing your food on said plate. The graphic design industry often refers to “white” space or “negative” space. White space allows the elements to exist at all and is key to composition. It reinforces the elements of the presentation. For instance, imagine the inside pages of the white pages. They appear cluttered and crammed with names. Now, one can imagine one of these pages replaced by a white page, onto which only one name has been printed. Now all we can see is one name in the middle of a white page. Far from bringing emptiness, white space actually reinforces what needs to be emphasized, in this case the only name on the page. In culinary arts, chefs use white space to strengthen their presentations in much the same way. By subtracting elements and increasing the amount of space, the featured elements of prepared food seem visually stronger.
Take a look at the photo above. I used a large, white, rectangular plate and purposely placed the main ingredient (salmon) on the right hand side of the plate. By doing this, I left a large amount of “white space” (or “negative” space). “Negative” space in this case serve the purpose of enhancing the very nice color of the curry vinaigrette and the tomatoes. it also brings focus to the salmon.
A color or a decorated plate, on the other hand, takes away from the food you’re trying to showcase. Pay attention to the 2 following photos. Although it is the same dish, one of the 2 looks better than the other one. Which presentation looks best? The 2 square plates are the same dimensions. Only the color changes; one being purple, and the other white. While the purple plate (note the emphasis on plate) looks great, the food on it looks like something is missing. What’s missing, of course, is contrast. See the difference of contrast, color between the 2 sets of mini tomatoes? Do you notice how the herb garnish looks brighter and “healthier” on the white plate, and how the whole dish looks like it’s “coming out” of the plate as opposed to “getting lost” into it?..
One of the risks of missing the balance when composing a plated design is clutter. Clutter distracts from the main elements and makes it difficult to identify the subject and easy to miss the focus. To minimize this risk, chefs often use space to simplify their design. A recent trend also consists on taking a minimalist approach when composing. In fine dining, large, white plates are often chosen to emphasize white space and create bolder presentations. Of course, on the other hand, inexpert use of white space can make a plate appear incomplete.
- colored plates may take away contrast, which is necessary to the overall visual appeal of the food.
- decorated plates clutter the presentation and focus on food is lost among complicated plate designs.
- Small plates do not leave enough “white space” and the food my appear cluttered.
- Deep plates (soup plates, pasta dishes) can give the impression of limiting height, which is also necessary to balance and unity of a food presentation.
- The design of the actual plate must be consistent with the theme of the food, as well as the expectation of your audience. For instance, it may be appropriate for a Mexican-themed dinner, to use handcrafted pottery plates to plate the food.
The image below shows the very same dish again, the salmon, plated on a large, white plate. Now we are much closer to a nice, clean, uncluttered restaurant-style presentation. First, the amount of “white space” is huge. This has the benefit to concentrate the food in the middle of the plate and brings focus to it. “White space” in this case also outlines the contrast of the curry vinaigrette and the sauteed baby tomatoes in a big, nice way. Finally, it brings unity to the presentation; Probably because the plate now acts as a large, uncluttered frame to this artistic food presentation.
Regardless, spacing must be appropriate and consistent with the theme, restaurant concept, number of courses on the menu, and the target audience. For instance, a BBQ buffet for a picnic does not benefit much from “spacing”, which is most often use in a fine dining setting. Buffets do not usually need spacing techniques because their strength relies on abundance, to which spacing may be detrimental.
In the photo below, the yellow/beige plate works well for the presentation, thanks mainly to the wise use of “negative spacing” (large plate; small food in center). But could it have worked better with a white plate of the same size?
In the next photo, a bright green, rustic plate is used to showcase a fish dish. This presentation also works well, probably due to the theme-consistent Carribean feel to it (banana leaf, funky colored plate, fish), as well as the striking contrast between the green of the plate and the white of the fish.
Another technique consists in mixing supports. It often adds value to presentations to plate food on unusual supports such as chinese soup spoons, shot glasses, scallop shells, etc...
Now, with supports (plates), there are also mistakes NOT to make. For instance, working with “cheap” plates is a mistake. Again, it takes away from the food by distracting the eye. Example in the following photo. First, the plate is too small, leaving no “negative” space to organize. Furthermore, the color rings kind of squeesh the food further and leave no leeway for uncluttered presentation. Finally, just like with a color plate, the somewhat faded color rings really take away from the food presentation. Yikes!
Another common mistake is to use a plate that is totally inappropriate for the presentation. In the photo below, I used a deep, oval pasta dish. While this might serve other purposes and highlight other foods like… well… pasta, it kind of “buries” the fish into the plate, canceling the elegance of height, and cluttering the food in a very clumsy way.
LESSON FOR TODAY:
- Use large, white plates to plate your food.
- Introduce theme-related plates consistent with the theme.
- Work with “white spacing”.
- Mix supports.
- Avoid inappropriate supports.