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The Art of Plating
How to create an aesthetically pleasing — and functional — plate.


Dec. 2017

Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC)

Most people eat with their eyes first. Since the art of plating can confound many a home chef, we talked to several local chefs who shared their expert advice:

— Think of how the dish is eaten first, then plate it the way it should be eaten, says James Beard Award-nominated chef Justin Carlisle, owner of Ardent and Red Light Ramen. “The further you put something away on a plate from someone, they’ll be forced to go through (other ingredients) to get to it,” he explains.

— And don’t put equal amounts of everything on the plate. “You wouldn’t put a cup of salad with a cup of dressing on it,” Carlisle points out.

— It’s OK to have some negative space on the plate. Really. “If you can see some of the plate between the components of the dish, that’s a good thing,” says Jason Tofte, chef and owner of Tofte’s Table. “Less is always more.”


— Don’t just pour the sauce over the dish — spoon it over or use a squeeze or squirt

bottle, which you can pick up at Boelter and other kitchen supply stores, Tofte says. “Sauce kind of goes everywhere, so if you use a spoon or a bottle, just pouring a little bit here, then drizzle it out lighter around the plate, you’d be surprised at what it looks like,” he adds.

— “Start with your cooking techniques — things like precise cuts of vegetables, etc. That’s the first thing to making a plate look good,” says John Reiss, culinary arts instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

— Then look at the plate as a clock face. Traditionally, the protein is put at 6 o’clock, then the vegetables at 3 or 9 o’clock, Reiss says. “That’s pretty standard, but there are many different ways to plate something,” he continues. “Just think things through.”


— Don’t be afraid to plate it once, and then re-plate it because it doesn’t look right. “It rarely works the first time unless you’ve been doing this a long time,” Reiss says. “Even I re-plate things. I’m always playing with food.”

— Odd numbers always look better, says Patty Peterson, manager of Larry’s Market. “Threes and fives always look better than twos and fours,” she says.

— Add some color to your dish. “Brown tastes delicious, but doesn’t look delicious,” Carlisle says. For example, a rich beef dish might be paired with mashed fava beans, which add a pop of green. Then, those beans are dressed with crème fraiche and sherry vinaigrette, which add a little bit of white and some acidity. Then, a bit of fresh tarragon adds a further pop of color. “Or add a bowl of fresh chutney or sauce on the side to add the color,” Peterson says.


— Only add herbs and accompaniments that make sense to the dish. “One of my things is I don’t like putting stuff on the plate that’s not edible,” Tofte says. “You put a sprig of parsley on it — are you really going to eat that? Probably not. It’s not a cohesive part of the dish, and to me, that’s not a garnish. A garnish is a little something I put on the dish on purpose because it’s part of the overall flavor components of the dish.”

— But what if the overall dish is monochromatic like coq au vin? Then use a colorful plate. And even if it is just a regular, weekday dinner, it’s OK to use the good china. “Most people’s china sits in a china cabinet or a box in the basement,” Tofte says. “I think that stuff’s cool, and it totally invites conversation.”

— Use an appropriate bowl or plate for whatever is served. “You don’t want a really huge spoon for a small bowl of soup, nor do you want to try to cut a piece of steak in a pasta bowl,” Carlisle says.

— Build a little height into the dish. “When you arrange food on a plate, stack things up to give the dish a little height,” Tofte says. “The plate is flat, so make the dish three-dimensional.” For a duck risotto, Tofte might first pile the risotto high in the middle, then stand the duck leg up to add height, then add some dried leeks and a tiny bit of microgreens with vinaigrette to finish the dish, perhaps with a rosemary-flavored oil, to bring out some of the herbs in the dish.


This story ran in the Dec. 2017 issue of: