So often we serve food family style at dinner parties, and miss out on the wow factor of serving our guests composed plates. Beautifully plated food, like what you get in a great restaurant, makes eating more fun and certainly more stylish. But there are pitfalls. We talked to chef Christopher Styler, author of Working the Plate: The Art of Food Presentation (John Wiley & Sons, 2006) to find out what home chefs should try—and avoid—when dishing up dinner.

What are some common mistakes home chefs make in plating?

The biggest mistake is that people don’t even really think about it in the first place. When you’re trained as a chef, it just becomes instinctual to make the food look good.

What should you definitely avoid; what are some rules of thumb?

Avoid trying to be a restaurant chef at home; you don’t have a support staff like a restaurant does. The thing is to start simple, and think about the main attributes of plating: How do you get visual interest? Contrasting colors, contrasting textural elements, contrasting height, white space on the plate.

What are some of the best platings you’ve ever seen?

One of the kings is Thomas Keller. Everything is absolutely pristine. Alfred Portale is known for that architectural, vertical style. That is something I do a lot. Take grilled salmon and make a big salad with whatever you want—shaved fennel, arugula, frisée, toasted hazelnuts—toss it in a big old bowl, and mound it on top of the salmon so you’re almost hiding it.

The worst?

Years ago, and I’m not going to name names, people were starting to go really overboard: Cannons shooting things, and really crowded plates. Teetering monumental plates, squiggly sauces—a little bit of that goes a long way.

What are some of the ways great plating can enhance a dish?

Right off the bat, it’s another way to make whatever you’re about to eat more appealing. Can it make bad food taste good and good food taste bad? I don’t know if I would go that far, but if something already tastes good, good plating will make it feel better.

And how can bad plating detract from a dish?

It’s like going to a movie and the first five minutes are bad: It’s kind of hard to win you back after that.

What are some plating techniques that were “in” in pro kitchens five years ago and are “out” now?

Definitely dusting plates with all sorts of things, overcrowding, excessive altitude.

What are some cutting-edge plating techniques you’ve seen recently?

Food that’s constructed to look like something it’s not—like something that looks like an egg but it’s not actually an egg.

Do you need special equipment?

I don’t think you really need anything. If you really wanted to get into it, there are molds to pack food—but you can also use an empty can.

If you have a basic dish—steak and mashed potatoes, say—what can you do to plate it well?

For the mashed potatoes, I would work with two large spoons, scoop with one and scrape with the other. You’re doing the opposite of cafeteria ice cream scoop. It’s great to slice steak. You have the fanned-out slices and the visual appeal of the contrasting colors of the inside and outside. String beans? Because they’re long and tangle easily, lift them with tongs over the plate and let them fall slowly so they pile on top of each other. And say you have a little baby arugula salad, thinly sliced red onion, and shaved Parmesan. Toss that together and give yourself a little height on that end of the plate. You could fan the steak slices around the salad so it wilts a little bit.

What are the best kinds of plates to plate on? Is color bad?

I think you can’t ever go wrong with a classic white plate, especially one with a nice wide rim. The empty space around the rim will draw your eye to the center, where all the action is. As far as colors of plates, it’s hard to make a fast rule. Yellow works for some things but can be horrible with others. A nice red plate can be wonderful with a salad or risotto Milanese. I would avoid plates with a very busy pattern.

Stacked Cobb Salad

From Working the Plate: The Art of Food Presentation, by Christopher Styler

Rethinking the arrangement of ingredients is one of the hallmarks of the architectural style. Here, the ingredients of a traditional cobb salad are stacked one atop the other, purely for fun and looks. Just as the “spokes” of a traditional cobb salad last for a moment or two until tossed together, this tower makes its statement, then tumbles into disarray as one starts to eat it. Choose layers of the ingredients that complement each other in terms of flavor, color, and texture. (The ingredients should also be large and moist enough to hold their shape—coarsely chopped nuts, for example, won’t.) Clearly defined layers are the key; picture this cobb salad as if it had been plated after all the ingredients were tossed together, then tamped into the mold.

Step 1

Place a tomato slice in the center of the plate to form the base of the stack. If the tomato is very juicy, drain it on paper towels for a few minutes. Set the mold over the tomato slice. In this case an empty tomato can serves as a mold, but a length of clean, unused PVC pipe works equally well.

Step 2

Spoon the first layer of the salad into the mold. Gently tamp down to help the stack hold its shape after unmolding.

Step 3

Continue adding layers, gently tamping down each, until the mold is filled.

Step 4

Remove the mold from the salad, lifting it straight up to keep the stack intact.

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