“We eat with our eyes,” says Chef Chris Mitchum of Lantana restaurant at Hyatt Grand Champions Resort, Villas & Spa in Indian Wells. “It doesn’t matter how delicious a meal tastes; if a dish is presented without style and finesse, if it isn’t appealing to the eye, it falls short.”
Just as painters add depth to their work with color, texture, shadows, and highlights, chefs mix and match edible versions of those same elements to create culinary masterpieces that are as visually stunning as they are tasty.
“Presentation of the meal in fine dining is everything,” says Chef Luis Zamora of Amorè Ristorante Italiano in La Quinta. “It’s all about the experience — the artful presentation of the food that whets one’s appetite and enhances a meal’s enjoyment.”
“The dish has to look good, smell good, and taste good,” confirms Chef Bernard Dervieux of Cuistot in Palm Desert. “If one of these steps is missing, you don’t climb the satisfaction ladder.”
“In culinary school, chefs are taught to make food taste good, because the palate never lies,” Mitchum says. “However, the real secret is blending both the visual and the taste.”
MASTERS OF THE REPAST
Throughout the centuries, people have enjoyed dining in festive, beautiful, and even lavish environments — from Roman feasts to Renaissance galas to modern-day, black-tie dinners. Mealtime has long been a social and cultural event.
“In the past, there have been many rules about what works and what doesn’t with presentation,” Dervieux says. “Today, there are really no rules. Chefs have much more creativity.”
“You have to go with what inspires you,” Zamora adds. “Did you know that ‘beautiful food’ actually makes food taste better?”
“Knowing your audience’s palate is also key,” Mitchum notes. “I always ask myself, ‘Who am I cooking for? What do they like to eat? Are they meat-and-potatoes fans or vegetarians? How adventurous are their palates?’ If a dish is prepared with a variety of foods and flavors that are unrecognizable to the taste or the combination of foods is out of left field, this can create an uncomfortable, displeasing situation.”
“Creating meals that taste as delicious as they look is like a drug for me,” Dervieux says. “I must be actively creating or thinking about what I am going to create every day; otherwise, I get depressed. Inspirations come from reading, experimenting, flipping through magazines and cookbooks. Sometimes talking to one of my vendors about the foods that are in season serves as the catalyst for my dishes. For example, in the fall, it might be a dish with wild mushrooms; in the summer, a citrus-flavored inspiration.”
“Traveling to different locales is a great inspirational source,” Mitchum says. “On a recent trip to the East Coast, I discovered some wonderful dishes and seasonings. Then, at home, I experiment in my own way, perfecting each dish before I try it out on customers. My one rule of thumb is to test my food as I’m preparing it and before I serve the dish. Cooks can’t be afraid to make a mistake either. Experimenting and good cooking go hand in hand.”
“I enjoy mixing, matching, and blending different flavors, colors, and textures,” Zamora says. “Blending soft with crunchy, adding spices and herbs to create flavorful nuances, zest, and excitement — all of these elements give a dish dimension and character.”
PLATE AS CANVAS, FOOD AS PALETTE
Like painters, passionate chefs create works of art with food, filling their canvas (the plate) with attention to complementary elements of color, texture, size, and shape.
“The food always dictates the plate,” Dervieux says. “I create the dish, then I see the plate. I get a certain sense, a feeling of what type of plate the meal should be on. There is only one rule for me in this regard: I always go with substance, so fine china is key.”
“The plate is where I build my home,” Zamora says. “Plates can also add tremendous visual table interest. Once a plate is chosen and the meal is positioned on the plate to my liking, I sprinkle sauces, herbs, and other edible elements to add depth and appeal.”
“Whether round, square, rectangular, or oval, the plate needs to complement the dish, not distract from it,” Mitchum says. “You don’t want a plate to be too busy with colors and patterns. After all, you don’t go out to enjoy the china; you go out to enjoy the meal.”
Experienced chefs understand how to create height without stacking ingredients so high that the dish comes tumbling down with the first bite — and how to avoid loading a plate with proportions that blend individual components into one mass.
“It’s important to allow for a generous serving,” Dervieux says. “However, this must be arranged to showcase the main ingredient — the meat or fish — surrounded by attractive accompaniments: colorful vegetables, luscious starches, etc.”
“Sometimes cooks can get too complicated and dramatic,” Mitchum says. “Simple but creative is best.”
If plates are the chefs’ canvases and food their palette, then culinary garnishing could be considered framing the work.
“I ask myself, ‘What will complement the spirit of this dish best?’” Mitchum says.
“I’m passionate about sauces — on entrées and desserts,” Dervieux says. “However, placement on the plate always comes from inspiration.”
“Garnishes are one of my signatures,” Zamora says. “I use flowers, a variety of sauces, a sprinkling of herbs, and go for lots of color.”
“It all comes down to ongoing self-education and experimentation,” Mitchum says. “When you are confident in your abilities, it allows you to trust your instinct, which is an essential ingredient for every good cook.”
While the composition of scrumptious food creatively garnished and presented creates anticipation for taste sensations to come, the most successful recipes come from chefs’ passion for their work.
“When it comes right down to it, food is definitely an opinion,” Mitchum says. “However, being true to yourself is the surest way to ensure your dinner guest will be joyfully satisfied.”