If your culinary creations look like they were thrown on a plate by a toddler on a sugar high, never fear … some of Queensland’s best chefs are here to show you how to turn your meals into photogenic gems
Does your cooking taste delicious, but your plating up skills have all the finesse of a three-legged donkey trying to tap dance?
In a culture obsessed with posting photos of almost every meal to social media, how food looks has never been more scrutinised.
So whether it’s for Facebook food porn or to impress friends at a dinner party, we’ve brought together expert chefs Mark Penna of Bacchus, South Brisbane, Xavier Yeung of Vanitas, Main Beach, and Cameron Matthews of The Long Apron, Montville, to give us their best tips for plating up like a pro at home.
“For me, presentation starts with the produce,” Matthews says. “Let the produce be the star. A lot of home cooks want to have the bells and whistles of a fancy restaurant ... but just use great product and present it simply.”
The Long Apron chef says different ingredients can change the way you plate up, such as using a grilled spring onion instead of a regular round onion can dictate a more vertical or crescent-shaped plate. While using ingredients in their natural form encourages a more rustic approach to presentation.
Yeung (far right) agrees. “Consider which ingredient is the most important and what you want to showcase and make that the focus,” he says.
“The first thing you need to consider is the plate,” Penna says.
“You need to have a decent plate if you want the dish to look good. It’s really difficult to make things look good on a standard dinner plate.”
Penna (inset) suggests visiting professional kitchenware suppliers, such as Table Direct at Coorparoo, in Brisbane’s south, where you can buy interesting, restaurant-style crockery at affordable prices. Plates without traditional lips work best for most dishes as they give you more room to play with and to showcase the ingredients.
“The plate shouldn’t be too fancy – simple white or black is good for home cooking – and big enough so you’ve got more space to put your food on,” Yeung says.
“When it’s time to plate up, the plate needs to be clean, the plating area needs to be clean and you need to be organised,” Penna says. It’s important to have all the components of the dish finished and ready before you start plating, as trying to cook and plate just
makes you flustered, he says.
All three chefs say that the key to a beautiful dish is solid foundations. “It’s important to have a good foundation so you can get good height, texture and colour,” Penna says.
For savoury dishes, an easy foundation is a puree or mash – swiped across the plate using the back of a spoon, a squeezy bottle or flat plastic scraper – covered by the other ingredients to be mostly unseen by the diner.
“With a ravioli dish, the puree is on the bottom for two reasons – the way it looks and the way people eat,” Penna says. “It stops the ravioli from sliding around, and then, because it’s hidden, when you put your spoon in and you get this puree on your tongue, you get an unexpected layer of flavour because you can’t see it and you don’t know it’s there.”
The same effect can be created with a meat-and-three-veg dish by using mashed potato or turning one of the vegetables into a puree and smearing it across the plate.
Alternatively, gently smash potatoes to form a base, or lay baby carrots lengthways.
There should be a combination of rough and smooth elements, while keeping some ingredients whole and others chopped to add excitement.
“Keeping vegetables whole is about having a connection with what you’re eating, but it
changes the texture of them too,” Matthews says. “With a whole parsnip, you’ll get different textures throughout the vegetable because of how it cooks. So the pointy end goes a little bit gnarly and chewy and the other end is almost light and fluffy.”
For a pasta sauce, Penna says reducing it down and adding a very fine grating of parmesan over the top so it melts in will give it a better texture and help it stick to the pasta, giving it more visual impact.
Meanwhile, Yeung says desserts work best when balancing smooth, creamy and crunchy textures.
Gone are the days of the stack; height is now much more subtle, Yeung says.
“I prefer not too high. If you spread out the food, you can see every single element and you can showcase all the ingredients and all your preparations,” he says.
For Matthews, height is all about flavour. “Instead of piling things on top of each other randomly, I like to layer it up with different flavours,” he says. “That keeps your interest so you get a bit of everything in your mouth.
“People at home tend to plonk it all down individually or all on top of each other so the favours you get are all one note.
“If you put some of the vegetables on a puree and then some of them on the sauce so everything is touching something different, every mouthful is different. Flavour is paramount. Flavour comes first.”
Yeung agrees. For his green mango and coconut parfait dessert, he layers elements to create height, but more importantly, flavour.
“We pipe a coconut ganache on top of the parfait so you’ve got a more even thin layer because you don’t want too much. Then we pipe a ginger and lemongrass gel and a coconut gel on top of that in little dots so it’s evenly distributed for even flavour.”
However, for usually sloppy pasta dishes, height is key to adding finesse, Penna says. “For pasta, it’s quite difficult to get height, so you need to try to get height where you can to make the colours pop,” he says. “So I’ll try to layer whatever I’m doing, such as layer the ravioli on an angle to get the light to bounce off it.”
For long pasta such as tagliatelle or spaghetti, Penna recommends coating the pasta in the sauce, being careful not to break the strands, then using a long pronged fork to twirl it around into a bundle. For an entree serve, create a small bundle and lie it on its side; for a main course, make a bigger bundle and stand it up, carefully spooning sauce over both.
“Three is the magic number – three key ingredients and three key colours – otherwise it’s too busy and your eyes can’t focus,” Penna says. “You want to make the main element of the dish the focus and then the other elements complement the hero.”
Creating interesting shapes is the ultimate cheat for home cooks trying to plate up, especially for desserts, Yeung says . “For garnishes, cut them small. You don’t need special skills, just spend time doing it in different shapes so each element is beautiful,” he says.
The trick also works for proteins, like beef, Matthews says. “With plating, a lot of it’s in the pre-work you do. Taking a piece of beef and rolling it in cling-film changes the shape of it, which changes the way it looks when you plate it up.
“You can shape it into a cylinder by rolling it in the cling film.”
Asymmetry is particularly popular at the moment among chefs and easy to achieve at home. Yeung recommends putting the star of the dish on one side of the plate and then a single smaller element on the other. “Don’t make the plate too busy with too many things,” he says.
So many dishes are ruined by covering all the beautiful elements in sauce, Matthews says.
“I like to sauce very lightly. If you’ve got a sauce, it’s normally quite reduced and strong, so you don’t need a lot of it. Always sauce with a spoon and use the front of a tablespoon, not the side, because it gives you more control.
“And make sure some things have sauce and others don’t, so each mouthful isn’t the same.”
Another way to add sauce on a meat-and-three-veg dish is with the vegetables.
“I like to take the vegetables and roll them in the sauce,” Matthews says. “It makes them beautiful and sticky and lovely
and adds a sheen.”