Food styling and presentation is much like doing a makeover of the dish to make it look trendy, attractive, and tempting. Juhi Sharma talks with several chefs to learn about the 3 Ts of styling: tools, techniques and trends
It is generally held that people eat first through their eyes and nose because the food’s visual appeal and aroma attracts them to the food first. So, chefs give prime importance to decorating, garnishing, and styling dishes to induce customers, who are sometimes even tempted to eat the edible decorations! According to food experts and chefs, there are no fixed rules for styling a dish, but one must have a basic understanding of the flavour and texture of the food(s) on the plate, so that the dish can be garnished with complementing ingredients. Here, plating is also important as the colour, shape and size of the plate would define the final look and appeal of the dish.
Rishi Verma Executive Chef, Sattviko
Avoid a monochromatic colour scheme as a plate of food looks most appealing when there’s a high level of contrasting colours. A bowl of plain oatmeal or a pasta served without any sauce or garnishing will never induce customers to eat. Even if you decide to dress the two dishes with flavourful ingredients such as butter and spices, it will still look bland and like a plain dish of starch. On the other hand, when the same bowl of oatmeal is topped with fresh red berries and a swirl of amber maple syrup, it will make the simple dish look very attractive. Similarly, a plate of pasta with a drizzle of green pesto and chopped cherry tomatoes on the top, will create a wholly different dining experience.
The way one cooks vegetables also has a lot of bearing on the overall visual effect. Veggies that are a tad overcooked, lose their color and tend to look less appetising than those that are cooked to the optimum point of softness. To avoid mushy, pallid vegetables, aim to cook them until they’re bright and with a bit of crunch.
Many meat dishes look most appetising when the meat has been seared. The sight of a steak or piece of grilled salmon with a brown, crispy sear will make the guests’ mouths water. In addition to searing meat, one should let it rest for several minutes before cutting it. This allows the juices to be absorbed back into the meat so that they don’t end up running all over the plate.
Underdone or overcooked fried foods are difficult to present in an appealing way. Cook fried foods until they’re golden brown, then let them drain on a plate lined with paper towels to absorb the extra oil. If the food looks too oily, dry, mushy, tough, or difficult to chew and swallow, it won’t matter how perfectly colourful it looks, if the texture is not right.
Latest styling trends include use of nitrogen to freeze desserts upto -60 degree celsius and then breaking them and using them as a powder to enhance the flavours. Many restaurants use foams instead of sauces, such as lemon foam, mint chutney foam, etc. There are varieties of edible flowers and micro greens available in the market, which are used for garnishing various dishes.
Italian cuisine is my best styled cuisine, as I like to keep the plate simple, clean and fresh. Italian cuisine is all about freshness as the dishes have a lot of fresh herbs, tomatoes, bell peppers, olives, etc. The ingredients are so colourful and vibrant that I enjoy plating and playing around with the dishes.
I believe that Indian cuisine is the most difficult to style, as everything is prepared in a pot at once, and food loses the colour and the texture for presentation. Here, I want to mention that modern day Indian chefs such as Chef Vineet Bhatia and Chef Vikas Khanna (both Michelin chefs) have taken Indian food to a very different level; the way they present Indian food is worth capturing on camera.
Manu Chandra Executive Chef and Partner, Monkey Bar, and Executive Chef at Olive Beach, Bangalore
Styling is largely reliant on the concept and caliber of the foodservice establishment or brand. A good coastal fine dine restaurant may opt for copper serving vessels and fresh curry leaves on dishes, while a Western style restaurant may want a more elaborate presentation with multiple components and colors. A gastro-pub, for instance, might bring in quirkier, youthful elements into its food presentation to go with its image.
Whatever the styling technique, it must ensure that it says something about the nature of the dish and gives an instant ‘pick-me-up’ feeling. For instance, we put a fun tag or flag on our burgers at Monkey Bar, and serve fries in a paper cone, which liven up the dish.
The current food styling rule says, ‘there are no rules!’ We use jam and Nutella jars to serve cocktails in; our Butterfly Chicken is a crisp wonton shell in the shape of a Butterfly; and our Sundae sandwich is actually a Sundae ice cream styled in sandwich layers. At Monkey Bar outlets, we use mismatched crockery to lend an informal feel. Our very popular Copper Monkey cocktail is served in copper tumblers.
Freshness and colour are two sides of a coin in styling, for instance, in Greek salad, an abundance of bell peppers, cucumbers, dill and olives give it a vibrant, fresh and healthy look. The theme of the place should match the food, and it should always look good enough to eat! In fact, I would suggest make your own styling. I personally enjoy styling contemporary European cuisine because of the ingredients and techniques, which allow a lot of creativity.
There is no cuisine which is difficult to style, though, sometimes, Indian dishes can be challenging. Asian cuisine on the other hand is very easy as it has a lot of layers. There are herbs and sauces which can be used to give an overall fresh look to the dish when you plate it.
Vicky Ratnani Chef Consultant, Gourmand, and Food Connoisseur
I portray food styling as dressing up and getting ready to look good. The beauty of presenting various dishes is dependent on different wares for plating or serving such as plain white plates, coloured platters, bone china crockery, textured glassware, wooden boards, granite slabs, stoneware or earthenware. Needless to say, colourful toppings and texture of food is essential.
Cost of food production, which includes presentation, needs to be kept in mind, as based on the budget set for a dish, the chef would decide and source ingredients and tableware for styling food.
My book, ‘Vicky Goes Veg’ showcases some interesting ways of styling various vegetarian dishes and ruling out the perception of veg food as being boring. In terms of my favourite food for styling, I like presenting Chickpea croquettes. The styling of this dish requires ingredients and wares such as chickpeas, garlic, herbs, and red chilli paste on a wooden crate and the croquettes served on inverted spoons.
Aneeta Myint Professor at IHM, Pusa, Development Chef and F&B Consultant
I believe it is important to understand the ‘Inverted Pyramids’ concept of customer segmentation before one attempts food styling and presentation. According to the concept, all segments of customers cannot be impressed with the same presentation. The higher the segmentation, the simpler the styling. Elite guests are less impressed by grandiose styling, and more by authenticity and simplicity. But today’s upwardly mobile middle class and youth will definitely be impressed with ostentatious, flamboyant styling.
A dish that looks colourful, fresh and natural, will appear more savoury. Mint leaves, angled and cut spring onions, herbs, dried fruits powder and dusts are some elements that add colour and diversity. Another technique is to mix two extremes, for instance, giving steam to ice cold salad leaves, which then appears like dew on the salad.
The service gear or plating of food is very important for the final look of a dish. Biryanis are best served in earthern handis, but other dishes would lose their appeal if served in these handis. Recently, I went to a pub where the beer was served in a large crystal glass jar in the shape of a stiletto.
Diwas Wadhera Executive Chef, Mosaic Hotels, Noida
To make food look fresh and alive, moisture is critical. Moisture can be retained by brushing or spraying the surface with water or a thin coat of vegetable oil, and keeping the food under cover till served. It creates the appearance of freshness and makes food look juicy.
Stabilising delicate foods is a common challenge as complicated stabilising techniques involve use of thickening agents such as gelatin or food starch. These can be used to keep sauces in place, or a slice of pie from collapsing.
The old saying, ‘best things come in small packages’ also applies to decorating or dressing food. It is wise to keep plates and portions small to make the dish look more appetising. This theory is relevant for food styling for photography.
There are some tips and tricks that only a good food stylist would know. For instance, to get fresh-looking salad leaves, plunge them in ice-cold water for about 15 minutes before presenting them. Before displaying them on the plate, dry them with kitchen paper. Too much oil, veggies and herbs make salads look dark and limp.
Thinking outside of the box when plating casual food can make it interesting, for instance, slip a piece of parchment paper or a rumpled paper under the sandwich to give it an unconventional look. Experiment with interesting shapes such as cutting vegetables into new shapes can make the simple become special. An ice cream cone can be used to make domes of rice or mashed potatoes.
Italian is one of my best style cuisines as it is simple to cook with all the freshness and colour combinations such as Couscous salad, Osso bucco of lamb, and Watermelon gazpacho. Italian cuisine is prepared and styled with less effort and yet looks beautiful.
Manoj Rai Executive Chef at Zerruco, The Ashoka, New Delhi
Now a days, guests want to see some excitement in food texture. At Zerruco, we have developed our own pasta in unique shapes like stiletto, paccheri, orecchiette, linguine, and tortellini, in different colours. We use patent moulds for making these pastas. Pastas are usually long and straight, curly, or tubular, based on which chefs find new ways to use them. In fact, they are one of the trickiest dishes to present attractively.
When food looks appetising, our body actually produces more fluids that aid in nutrient absorption. So the more beautiful food looks, the more wholesome it is. Examples are presenting vegetables in their brightest colours; steak or grilled salmon with a brown, crispy sear, contrasting firm, soft, silky and rigid textures, etc. Sprinkling a dash of cinnamon over a chicken dish, or a handful of pomegranate seeds over an otherwise ordinary salad, add a burst of flavour and colour.
Soups tend to look boring and neutral; adding chopped thyme, fried pieces of sage, minced chives, or a green herb will freshen them up.
Plating is important. White platese provide contrast, making food appear brighter and textures more interesting. I personally love food plating, especially when I am serving Italian food.