Have you ever been to a Furr’s or Wyatt’s cafeteria? As you went through the hot line were you intrigued with what you saw? Did you ask for the grey spinach because your mother was with you? Did you hold back on the enchiladas hoping they would bring a new pan so you would not have to scrape up the left overs? Which dessert did you pick out when you got to that place on the line?
I don’t mean to put them down but there is a reason why you are willing to go and pay good money to eat in a nice restaurant that specializes in not only taste but also in appearance. We eat with our eyes as much as with our mouths. The foods can be very tasty but if they are poorly presented we tend to pass them by.
I took my nearly three year old daughter out to a very fancy restaurant some years back. All during the meal the waiter passed us by on his way to other tables with a fantastic looking dessert cart. Every time he went by, Aimee’s eyes would get very big with anticipation. I kept bribing her with the fact that he would bring it to us when she finished her dinner. When the meal finished he had the audacity to ask; “What would you like for dessert?” with out bringing the cart with him. My reply was, “The dessert, the dessert, you know that cart you have been teasing us with all night, where is the cart?” We had already eaten with our eyes.
The chef lessons from this are that presentation is the most important aspect of foods. The chain restaurants are told that the foods pictured on their menu should look the same as the picture when it is delivered to the table. In a fancy restaurant you are paying for the fact that the food will be presented a way that it is consumed with your eyes long before you actually taste it.
These are some things that a chef learns as he makes the journey through his career. The distinguishing mark of a great chef is his ability to take those ordinary things that we eat every day presenting them in new and exciting way. Here are some of the elements that he will use to transform visually dull foods to make us want them to jump off the plate into our mouths.
Texture, , , , Taste
The chef uses different textures in his presentations that will, blend or contrast with the other elements on the plate. The word abrasive was used in a recent commentary, it is a great description of the use of texture. By painting a plate with Creme Anglaise, placing a slice of coarse Genoese cake and adding fresh berries in a random fashion the chef uses texture to add appeal. Blackened ahi tuna atop a gaufrette potato with pickled red ginger and a dollop of green wasabi mayonaise is another example.
Color is also extremely important, we know what most foods look like in their natural state. If a plate or platter changes that color to something we do not expect from our experience we will tend to be very cautious about trying it. Working with different colors of the same genre like a fruit platter the chef can assemble contrasting or complimentary colors to please the eye. Along with this the way that something is shaped or cut can add to the appeal.
Along with color, a chef can use unique combinations of types of foods. This is where creativity and knowledge come together. Seemingly odd combinations of foods can be presented colorfully in a way that stops you with a “wow that is an odd combination,” type thought. Imagine the white orange of shrimp floating in a shallow pool of deep red lingonberry sauce with bits of roughly chopped basil leaf scattered randomly about. It may be different from your previous experience, but not in an unpleasant way.
Assaulting the Senses
Sometimes the combinations will be totally at odds with what you would think should go together. Like a seabass marinated in southern barbeque sauce or a glazed strawberry dessert on a puree of sno-peas (just saw the picture) We recently serve a black cod (sablefish) entree on a bed of coarse teriyaki flavored poblano and yellow beet slaw. So foods and food groups that might seem radically different can be combined with great visual effect.
Finally there is taste, where the rubber meets the road, does it taste as good as it looks. Or sometimes does it taste any good at all, given the strange combination of ingredients. All of the above need to be in place before we will even venture to try it out in our mouths. The taste part is the culmination of the dining experience, not the beginning. Here is the opportunity to prove that, in spite of the contradictions to the senses, the combination is actually quite good. This is the quest of the chef, to find unique combinations, properly prepare them, present them in a distinctive manner, and prove to the tongue that the eyes did not lie.
Interested in learning ways to do this at home? Take a look at these videos, Chef Todd has some great Ideas.