For years consumers have been oohing and ahhing over beautifully plated dishes in magazines, on television, and at restaurants. But colorful, delicate, and eye-catching menu items are “ready for their close-ups” like never before, and with a distinct nod towards the feminine, chefs increasingly are presenting dishes that not only taste delicious, but look that way as well.
“Food looks prettier when it has a feminine touch,” says New York-based celebrity chef David Burke. “For a creative chef, it’s almost like being a florist.” Burke, whose restaurants include David Burke Prime, David Burke Townhouse, David Burke Fishtail, and Fromagerie, was one of the first chefs to experiment with camera-ready, vertical dishes.
“I have been swinging for the fences ever since I was a chef at the River Café (in Brooklyn, New York),” he says. “It’s hard to compete with the New York skyline so my dishes had to be especially beautiful.”
The evolution to artistically designed plate presentations has been growing steadily since nouvelle cuisine became popular in the 1980’s. Other trends, such as local, seasonal, and micro, have converged to bring out the feminine side of food.
“I think feminine food looks better,” Burke says. “If you are going to a fine-dining restaurant you are paying for that show, the color, the spectacle. At bistros you would expect it to be a little more meat and potatoes.”
As Burke points out, when chefs plate dishes it is similar to floral arrangements, but there are a few simple rules. Garnishes must be edible so there can’t be too many sticks holding things together and it’s important to create focus on the plate. Color is a must and the food should appear fresh, with a light and airy look.
Atlanta-based chef and restaurateur John Metz, Jr., who co-founded Sterling Hospitality, owner of Aqua Blue Restaurant & Bar, Marlow’s Tavern, and Sterling Spoon Culinary Management, agrees that food has become more feminine-looking over the last 10 years.
“The Food Network and the popularity of open kitchens has had a tremendous influence on the way food looks as it comes out of restaurant kitchens,” he says. “There is so much more detail in presentations and chefs are really precise about where they place the asparagus or the protein. It seems to me that this took off in the mid 90’s, but the trend has really escalated over the past decade.”
Metz also thinks increased popularity of ethnic foods has familiarized the public with new ingredients like quinoa and faro. “So many chefs are having fun with some of these ingredients. It’s really about a styled product more than ever before.” But Metz cautions a chef has to balance presentation with practicality when delivering 500 to 1,000 dishes a day: “There is a real opportunity for creativity, but it’s important to balance appearance with taste and delivery. I can’t design a dish so intricate and detailed that my kitchen can’t execute it day in and day out.”
Mindy Segal, owner of the restaurant and dessert bar, Hot Chocolate, in Chicago, and winner of the 2012 James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef, thinks the molecular gastronomy movement has skewed food presentation towards the feminine. “I think chefs are breaking down food differently than before,” she says. “They are putting more components on the plate and playing with the classics to come up with different ways to invent things. Chefs are more playful now.”
Segal says she enjoys food with feminine appeal. “Obviously, I like things that are feminine because I am a woman. It makes for a lovely approach to food and a different way of thinking about it.”
But clearly you don’t have to be a woman to appreciate a beautifully plated, delicate looking dish. “I think men especially like food that is feminine,” Burke says. “There’s nothing better than a spectacular dish that has real craftsmanship and a touch of whimsy.”