She Knows Cooking Smart

Plate presentation primer

Plate presentation primer

Joanne M. Anderson

The old adage “we eat with our eyes” cannot be overstated. The moment our eyes meet food, our appetite, attitude, comfort level and desire to eat are influenced favorably or otherwise by the food’s appearance.

One wonderful way to enhance visual appeal is with garnish: a well-planned complement to the foods being served. From the French noun garniture, garnish was developed and refined by the French who consider it a bona fide accompaniment to the meal, not merely a decorative tidbit. In the U.S., it’s most often used to make a plate or platter of food more attractive. But in the ever-evolving world of upscale cuisine, chefs are enhancing plate presentation with flavor as well as visual appeal.

“Better cooks these days understand that visual elements need to actually add flavor to a dish–maybe a dusting of carrot powder along the curve of a tea-poached halibut,” explains Frank Bonnano, chef and co-owner of Denver’s Mizuna and Luca restaurants. “A good meal assaults all of the senses,” he continues. “The aroma leads; the beauty follows; the taste ensues; and the memory lingers.”

Many items are appropriate for food accents in your kitchen, and a few rules apply to all of them:

* Garnish should always be edible, cleanly cut and easy to handle.

* Use it in limited portions so it never overwhelms the entree or side dishes.

* No single garnish is appropriate for everything. Cinnamon apples, lemon wedges and mint, for example, have very distinctive tastes and go much better with some foods than others.

* If you’re using herbs and aren’t sure which has the appropriate flavor, stick with parsley.

A palette for the palate

Herb leaves, fruit slices and twists, berries, small vegetables, edible flowers, carved or shredded foods, nuts and wafers all contribute color accents, taste and balance to a plate. Your choice can go under food–for example, a bed of lettuce with green curly edges creating a frame around an entree. Sometimes you’ll want to place decorative accents on top–for example, fresh fruit spilling off whole-wheat French toast–or to the side, like fanned lemon slices and parsley or fresh dill resting neatly next to grilled salmon. Or garnish can simply fill a space on the plate that may seem empty to the eye.

You might not think of sauces and oils as garnish, but creatively placed, they can delight the eye and complement the taste. Chef Cunninghame West, owner of The Bank Food and Drink in Pearisburg, Virginia, often uses flavored oils, edible flowers and vegetable confetti to present his high-quality dishes. He makes his own basil oil (see sidebar) and circles it around an entree. “To me, the classic garnish is a fresh herb such as thyme, rosemary or chives with a dash of olive oil over it to make it glisten,” says West.

Balance and restraint: good ideas for both diet and garnish

In some instances, garnish is not needed and, in fact, will clutter an otherwise good-looking plate. For example, a plate with a variety of sushi needs no embellishment, colorful as these rice-based delicacies are. Color and texture combinations should be planned carefully so there’s a comfortable balance between them. Baby carrots, for example, lend color to a plate with white cheesy polenta and meat. But they won’t work well with sweet potatoes, where another color should be chosen. If everything is smooth, such as mashed cauliflower and butternut squash with sliced roast beef, select a garnish with shape and color, like small, bright green broccoli pieces.

The plate as backdrop

Consider also the color of the plate, which takes second stage to well-presented food. Choose an appropriate plate size for the volume of food you are planning so the plate looks comfortably full when arranged. Add edible embellishments that don’t clash with or blend into the plate. Dinner plates, like portions and other things that have grown too large in America, now run in 11- to 15-inch width ranges. I’m partial to my set of 8-1/4-inch plates from Waverly. They are pretty and easy to fill with reasonable portions.

Getting shapely

Creative food shapes and unique arrangements command attention and can range from a heart-shaped patty or a radish rose to diamond wedges of wholegrain toast or an apple that’s been crafted into a bird. Look for garnish kits, which come with instruction books and little carving tools to help you make boats, bowls, borders, butterflies and birds out of foodstuff.

Plate Presentation Primer

Chef Cunninghame’s Basil Oil

Pick clean 1/4 pound basil; add to boiling water about 30 seconds. Remove basil and place in ice bath, then squeeze out water with towel. When dry, put basil in blender with enough good olive oil about one inch past the blade. With lid on, start to blend and add olive oil through top until a nice green color appears, then strain through cheesecloth or filter.

Flowery language

“I see cooking with flowers as the new culinary frontier…”–Rosalind Creasy, in the foreword to Edible Flowers, From Garden to Palate by Cathy Wilkinson Brash (Fulcrum Publishing, 1995; ISBN 155591246X)


Soup takes on special appeal when garnished. A few ideas:

* dollop of sour cream mixed with lemon juice

* freshly grated cheese

* thin slices of raw mushroom

* tiny avocado cubes

* Chef Cunninghame’s vegetable confetti: Simply shave off vegetable skins, dice and float on the surface just before serving. A sprinkling of herbs over the soup and edges of the bowl and plate

* For cold fruit soup, a tablespoon of creatively swirled heavy cream


Enjoy these edible flowers as garnish for your favorite dishes:

* Pansy

* Nasturtium

* Daylilies

* Roses

* Marigold

* Redbud

* Scented geranium

* Tuberous begonia

* Violets

* Chrysanthemum

When the food looks pretty, everyone is impressed. And if “everyone” is just you, then you’ll enhance your very own dining experience with an attractively presented plate, and practice for times when you have company.

About the author: Joanne M. Anderson is a Blacksburg-based freelance writer and former innkeeper. She is the author of Small-Town Restaurants in Virginia and Solomon Says: Observations of an Innkeeper Dog. Now also her mother’s caregiver, the 50-something Anderson controls and maintains her weight with a predominantly low-carb regimen. Visit her at

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