A meme has been circling lately that says, “My favorite childhood memory is not having to think of what to cook for dinner every single day”. Most home cooks have had at least a few moments of greatness. A turkey that turns out perfectly. A cake that looks close to the recipe photograph. A family favorite that successfully stirs warm feelings of nostalgia. But then there are the long stretches of standard fare that turn out edible but definitely don’t look good enough to land on social media.
So we are gathering up some inspiration from three local chefs for their expert ideas and collecting some insight into the art of plating and why presentation matters.
Fredy Solis, head chef of 318, appreciates the creative aspect of cooking. “I just enjoy playing with food. Creating and playing. That’s my favorite part.” His signature style is rooted in freshness. Everything in his kitchen is made from scratch, sourcing the best local ingredients possible. Fredy also keeps things seasonal, and this is reflected in his menu selections. While flavor profiles are his top priority, Fredy acknowledges appearance matters. “If they (customers) see a dish with a good presentation, people will try it. The visual is very important. People will see something pass by that is appealing and want to order it for themselves.”
One of Fredy’s tricks for pleasing plating is flipping the inside out. “Something simple like a sandwich — I try to make all of the ingredients even and then cut at an angle to expose the layers. Then I turn both sides outside on the plate. Displaying the inside of the sandwich on the outside. When the interior is visible it communicates to the customer that everything is fresh."
Fredy also is thoughtful about composition so that every ingredient can be tasted with each bite and says height is often used when plating. “I like to build up a salad. Not leave it flat on the plate. Building it up into a mountain makes it more interesting.”
Eli Wollenzien, chef and owner of Coalition, contends plating is both art and science. “A lot goes into creating a recipe and plating is one of many considerations. There are so many different styles of plating. Some can get very intricate. There is no one proper way. It has to fit your restaurant and has to be executed consistently.” At Coalition, he often begins with a base, grain or potato to ground the plate and then cuts a protein in a manner that offers the best presentation. Vegetables cut using a variety of techniques can add texture and color. Edible garnishes can play a role too, adding color and visual interest. “The elements of a dish should be visible. Nothing buried. Some height is always nice. Keeping everything tight together on the plate and compiling elements to touch is best. Sometimes dishes have a tableside finish with a poured sauce or spice added by a server.”
Zach Brown, chef and owner at Bull and Wren says food should be fun and interactive and people ‘eat with their eyes first’ so appearances do matter. “We often make things shareable. Minnesotans love to share. It should be a talking piece — a conversation starter. Like our seafood tower. We build it from the ground up on a tiered tray. It has great height and we make it intuitive for the customer so they can just enjoy.”
Zach likes to use contrasting flavors and elements on a plate for visual and taste appeal. For example, his Sea Bass uses Pico de Gallo and pomegranate seeds. It’s unexpected, but the contrast works. He also likes to use sauces on the plate and infused oils to make the plate pop but also to get the customer involved, deciding how much or how little to add to each bite.
For home cooks, these chefs recommend a variety of things to make dinner at home a heightened experience and even look photo worthy. All of them mention the importance of the actual physical dishes for artful presentation. White dishes are a great backdrop to highlight any dish. Or even solid black to make a vibrant sauce or side standout. And all three chefs emphasized taking some time when cooking. Let the meat rest. Create uniformity on each plate. Invest in some proper tools like tongs, ring molds, squirt bottles to gain some control over each element. Prep everything and then assemble at the end. Have some fun with it. And practice. Practice is clearly the secret ingredient at all three of their restaurants.
When we tire of cooking at home (likely tomorrow) we can visit Fredy, Eli and Zach in Excelsior for lovely meals in delightful atmospheres that not only taste delicious but are a feast for the eyes as well.