There’s truth to the expression, “You eat with your eyes.” The more visually appealing a plate appears, the more hungrily your stomach rumbles. Odds are a European and domestic cheese symphony plated with roasted walnuts and a butter drizzle will entice dinner guests more than a sad-looking grocery store cheese platter adorned with inedible parsley garnish.
Legendary French restaurant The Refectory knows the rules of plating and food preparation, and you should too.
The restaurant doesn’t open for another three hours, yet a bustling cooking crew greets me as Refectory’s Head Chef Richard Blondin walks us to the dessert niche. He’s about to demonstrate the various techniques and stages a picture-perfect plate undergoes.
Photos of plated desserts are taped to the walls, diagrammed with arrows, instructions, and ingredient names. I immediately think how this nook could pass for an art gallery or a scene from a cooking crime show. But I see no bread or blood. Instead, I’m told if the restaurant plans for a busy night, plating has to be designed around pace and volume.
Like an artist at work, Blondin intently begins pulling out ingredients.
Step one: he shimmies a gambas, or shrimp roll, colored light pink with speckles of green and cream, onto the center of a white dish. Next, he carefully layers slices of cured salmon trimmed with sugar, pepper, and salt in an elevated fan around the roll. He then meticulously places red onion strands dyed with red beet juice atop the half-finished creation.
“It helps if you focus on one color family. In this case, we’re using red.” Up to this point in our interview, he had been making consistent eye contact. Now, the plate beckons him to its level. “Most ingredients should belong to a similar hue, but it’s always a good idea to add green. Color and texture contrast is good.”
Things were starting to get saucy, but just as I asked a dessert-line worker what happens to a ruined plate, I see Blondin’s seaweed vinaigrette bottle nozzle burp out of line. Using surgeon-steady hands, he quickly transfers the goods onto a fresh plate.
The anti-Jackson Pollock, he cancels out some white space by drizzling smoked carrot and seaweed vinaigrettes, both of which have distinct consistencies. Taking a toothpick, he swipes through a caterpillar of grapefruit and raspberry vinaigrette dots. For the finishing touches, Blondin tops the sculpture with micro arugula and dusts the plate with pepper and sea salt. In just three minutes, he’s crafted a culinary masterpiece.
There’s really no limit to what we can fashion out of food; however, chemistry plays a large role. Richard tells me how he cooked carrots in a blood-orange juice. The byproduct of this seemingly accidental experiment? Really shiny, tangerine carrots that still taste like carrots.
For those accustomed to shoving anything down their gullets, Blondin tells them to close their eyes and think about what makes sense together, artistically and tastefully. He’s made a habit of turning to allegories to explain his inspiration. “When I walk my dog, I look around and watch nature. You see this dog, frog, and rabbit. They all live together, so I think they should be on a plate together.”
After a long day of work, school, or fun, one may not have the time or effort to create food art, but Blondin believes the least we can do is transfer Chinese take-out onto a hand-painted ceramic dish and drizzle soy sauce around the dish’s rim, with a dollop of wasabi at the dish’s 7 o’clock.
“Even if I’m pulling leftovers out of the fridge, I’m going to arrange it in a certain way to make it look good. I don’t want my food to look boring,” explains Blondin. “I think it’s a mistake to automatically think only fancy restaurants can make masterpieces, because plating just doesn’t apply to fine dining. Labor and knowledge make the difference … It allows you to spend more time on a tiny garnish that’s just going to be one bite of your meal.”
There you have it. Plating is an art as much as preparation is. You play as you Gough. So next time you go white tablecloth dining, pay less attention to the beefy check or your dolled-up date—it’s the food that deserves your utmost consideration, for you’re most likely eating a work of art.