7 Chef Tips for Mad Food Presentation Skilz

colorful food presentation for crab stack

You may be a great cook, but how are your food presentation skills? Chefs know that a pretty plate impresses diners. I’m a really decent cook, but when I met Chef Iggy he effortlessly blew me away on two pro-level skills: sauces and food presentation. I shouldn’t be surprised. While I was in school analyzing biblical references in William Blake’s poetry, Chef Iggy was studying Hollandaise and how to break down dead cows. In the kitchen, knife skills trump iambic pentameter.

Studying professionally plated food has taught me a few tricks. For example, the food can touch! What a radical thought! If you don’t follow any of these other tips, just letting some of your foods overlap each other on the plate will immediately improve your food presentation game. Like this tempting board of smoked fish and pickles from Perly’s Restaurant & Delicatessen. 

smoked fish board

Pile it on! This messy plate of smoked fish and pickles invites diners to dive right in.

If you want to push further, we’ve got you covered. We put together the top seven chef food presentation skills for impressing your family and guests, illustrated by plated examples from some of Virginia’s top professional chefs. Try a few of these and make your next meal more fancier.

1. Color It Up

One of the (many) tenets of Japanese bento is that the little lunch must contain five different food colors. As someone who made bento lunches for many years, I can testify as to how difficult this is. Can you think of five different-colored foods that you would prepare and eat for one meal? If not, no worries. At least try for, say, three.

Even that can be surprisingly difficult, as so much food is shades of brown, with the occasional green. Try to get some red in there! Or purple. Orange. We eat with our eyes first, and a pretty plate promises to be a tasty plate.

colorful crab stack

Colorful crab stack incorporates five different colors.

This remarkable crab stack from Chef Carlisle Bannister at Upper Shirley Vineyards actually manages to get five different colors on the plate – red, green, orange, white and even purple. The colors are vivid, not dull and washed out. It promises an equally vivid flavor, and diners can’t wait to dig in. Food presentation level 10+ on this one.

2. Get Some Garnishes

Here’s where a kitchen garden or even a small container garden comes in handy. Grow herbs and edible flowers and you’ll always have colorful, fresh garnishes! I know one professional chef who has a kitchen garden outside the restaurant simply to grow edible flower garnishes.

Important note: Food presentation 101 dictates that all garnishes must be edible! Never put anything on the plate that can’t be eaten (apart from normal bones or pits that diners would expect). Adding a garnish can be a way to cheat an extra color onto the plate. For example, top a plate of pasta with a sprig of fresh basil. Or top a small salad with a few blueberries and a sliced strawberry.

pasta

A simple garnish can perk up a plain dish.

For the simple sweet potato gnocchi pictured here, Chef Iggy garnished the plate with homemade ricotta and a sprig of fresh mint. The white and bright green spark up an otherwise pretty dull plate. They also add some zing that helps temper the rich ragu sauce.

3. Scale the Heights

Go vertical! This is a food presentation trend in professional restaurants that just isn’t going away.

Instead of putting foods next to each other, professional chefs look for ways to put them on top of each other, building little edible skyscrapers. A flat plate is usually boring. A tall plate creates drama and interest. Probably because we are wondering if it will fall (and sometimes it does). That’s exciting.

pound cake

Tilt a piece of pound cake to go vertical.

To go vertical, you don’t need to get architectural about it. For the fruit and cake dessert pictured here, Chef Walter Bundy at Shagbark simply turned the triangle of Old Virginia Buttermilk Poundcake on its side. This creates a tiny cake pyramid amid the fruit garden. It’s simple, and adorable. You want to eat it now, don’t you?

Simply look for opportunities to prop something up, or put something on its side instead of its back. For example, Chef Iggy will often pile a starchy side, like grits or mashed potatoes, in the center of the plate and then top it with a chicken thigh or sliced pork loin.

pimento cheese

Vertical snack: Pimento cheese and crackers.

You don’t need to wait for a fancy dish to try this food plating trick. Check out this picture of Chef Ian Boden’s plate of pimento cheese and crackers at The Shack in Staunton. Just piling up the cheese dip and leaning the crackers against it creates vertical interest.

4. Cut the Plate

Warning: This is an advanced food presentation skill and can be difficult plating with a full dinner to serve. I leave that to the pros, and I prefer plating this way with appetizers or snacks. It works like this: Using either large-ish plates or small servings, just use part of the plate.

You can create fancy arcs and swirls of food around the outside edge of the plate. Or just plop one perfectly centered small treat in the middle. Think of this as “framing” the food by the deep rim of the plate.

salmon

Mad food presentation skills on this salmon dish

The salmon in this picture is a perfect example. Chef Trevor Knotts at East Coast Provisions is doing so much right for this dish – color, garnishes – that I hate to call it out for just one single food presentation example. But what’s really brilliant here is that he’s only using half the plate.

This hand-thrown plate is pretty large, and most home cooks would be desperately trying to fill it up. Or use it as a serving platter. Instead, think about building a little work of art on the plate, showcasing both the food and the lovely dish.

5. Try New Servers

Hand-thrown pottery (like the plate in the above example) in natural colors is trending in professional dining rooms these days. But home cooks can’t always afford to update an entire dining set. Instead, mix and match a few dishes using a pretty or unusual plate.

cast iron serving dish

Cute serving dishes enhance food presentation.

This trick works well if your food presentation skills are still coming up to speed. If you have some unusual or beautiful dishes, you can get away with just tossing food on them. Also consider serving food in the actual cooking dishes, as Chef Craig Perkinson did when he used the tiny cast-iron baker for this roasted duck, brussels sprouts and apple dish at Southbound.

More and more professional chefs are using large bowls to serve entire courses, which is a good strategy to try at home. Use large, flat bowls (sometimes called “soup plates”) for the best effect, and pile the food together or stack it up. Again, so it’s actually touching.

6. Smear the Sauce

Sauces separate the real chefs from the home cooks. Not only can professional chefs create the perfect sauce that marries disparate elements of a dish, but they know how to present it. Chefs don’t just pour sauce on top of food. They drizzle it, draw with it and smear it.

Here’s a cheffy secret: Sauces are often better under the food instead of on top of it. On top they can make a crisp entree soggy. A sauce can also obscure an otherwise visually lovely entree.

plated scallop

Artistic sauce drawings and smear perk up this scallop.

Another secret: Put the sauce in a squeeze bottle and you have an instant sauce pencil. You can dot, swirl, spatter and draw. If you have two or three different colored sauces, you can really get artistic. For this seared scallop topped with a cube of lemon gelee, Chef William Price at The Berkeley Hotel used two sauces in contrasting colors to add artistic appeal to the large plate. This is a combination of squeeze-bottle dots and spatters, plus the smear.

The smear is very easy sauce trick, no squeeze bottles required. Drop a spoonful of sauce on the plate. Then, with the back of the spoon, press it into the blob of sauce and quickly pull the spoon in the direction you want the smear to go.

charcuterie plate

The smear amid the charcuterie.

You can place the food on top of the smear, or just let the smear speak for itself. In this charcutierie board from Metzger Bar & Butchery, Chef Brittanny Anderson breaks up a plate of blobs with an artistic smear of apple butter in the center. Also notice the slate tile she uses for food presentation – another example of using creative serving plates.

7. Spread the Fan

Fanning the food is a simple trick that looks oh-so-pro. Fan out crackers, cheese and meats for a simple snack, as Chef Will Longoria at The Rogue Gentlemen did here. Or get fancy with the main course.

fanning food presentation

Colorful fanned food prettifies a snack plate.

Chef Iggy usually slices and fans roasted meats like seared skirt steak, grilled pork loin or boneless chicken breast. Slicing and fanning them on the plate (atop a little pile of mashed potatoes) fancies up an otherwise plain dinner. Hit it with a sprig of parsley or basil and you’ve got One Fancy Dish.

There you have it! Wow your family and guests by applying a few of these food presentation skills to your next dinner plate. Keep practicing and you’ll find your own favorite methods for particular dishes. Then you’re well on your way to greater Cheffy-ness.

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