Do food presentation and plating techniques actually matter?
In short, yes.
The way you present your food is what tempts customers to try a dish. We eat with our senses: what we see, smell, and feel. And in the age of Instagrammers and food bloggers, plating techniques and food presentation matters more than ever.
A study from Oxford gastrophysicist, Professor Charles Spence, suggests that the food presentation can actually make a dish taste better.
In the study, Spence gave 60 people 3 salads and asked them to rate each one before and after they ate them. The salads each used the same ingredients but presented them in different ways. One salad was put together with no regard given to presentation, one was neatly arranged, and the third was plated to resemble a painting by artist Wassily Kandinsky.
Can you guess which salad diners liked best?
It was the salad that resembled a painting.
Diners thought it tasted better (29% tastier to be precise), even though it used the exact same ingredients. Spence’s study concluded that consumers were willing to spend as much as three times more on a well-plated dish.
Even basic dishes like a salad can benefit from thoughtful presentation—it makes the dish seem more appetising and valuable.
So how can you use that information to your advantage?
We talked to chefs Daniel England, Joyce Tang, Tanner Agar, Jim Solomon, Michael Welch, and Brian Poe to learn their favourite food presentation and plating techniques. Each technique focuses on five key food presentation factors: colour, arrangement, balance, texture, and how easy it is for guests to eat.
The top food presentation and plating techniques
- Create height on the plate
- Cut meat horizontally
- Play with textures
- Use contrasting colours
- Match presentation to the restaurant theme
- Choose the right plates
- Serve smaller portion sizes
- Use edible garnishes and decorations
- When in doubt, keep it simple
- Express yourself
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1. Create height on the plate
Daniel England, corporate chef with San Diego’s OMG Hospitality Group, likes to create height as he plates food.
“It’s important that you don’t separate the food trying to fill the plate—build from the bottom up,” he says. “If you could use a little structure, you can always purchase a ring mould to start with a base. Simply pack some food in the mould and gently lift it up. Now you have a base to build on.”
2. Cut meat horizontally
England also recommends “fanning” or shingling out slices of meat to show off its quality.
“Slice your meats on a 45-degree bias, and also slice against the grain of the meat for a more tender cut,” he says. “Show off that perfect medium-rare steak!”
3. Play with textures
Joyce Tang, chief baking officer at Oakland, California’s La Chinoserie, suggests playing with textures, foams, and sauces to make the dish look more interesting.
“I like to play up contrasting textures on my plate,” she adds. “Foams are usually really helpful in plating and can be really easily done, playing around with different sauces and textures.”
4. Use contrasting colours
Tang also stresses the importance of playing with contrasting colours. She avoids artificial colours and uses matcha, powdered sugar, or natural colours to catch the eye instead.
“The way you present your food is hyper-important” she adds. “The more time you spend on how you present each dish, the more visual interest you can stimulate in folks.”
Tanner Agar, owner and chief experience officer at Rye Restaurant in McKinney, Texas, echos that sentiment.
Agar recommends using bold colours to create appealing visuals. “The easiest way to add colour is to start working with more colourful ingredients. Items like carrots, potatoes, cauliflower, lettuces, beans, and more come in a variety of gorgeous colours,” he says. “The difference a purple cauliflower puree makes on a plate is striking.”
5. Match food presentation to your restaurant theme
Jim Solomon, chef and former owner of The Fireplace in Brookline, Massachusetts, says that the style of plating should match the restaurant’s atmosphere.
“Small ethnic restaurants, where it appears grandma is cooking in the kitchen, can’t serve plates that try to emphasise vertical, architectural compositions,” he says.
“Your guests expect a simple, welcoming presentation that stresses straightforward flavour cooked with heart and served with an unfussy, rustic quality. At relatively pricey, hip and high-end restaurants, guests want to see a degree of artistry and care taken in constructing the dishes.”
The way you plate your food should directly reflect your restaurant type.
Solomon adds that “food should have an element of height or visual texture, the balance of colour and thoughtful garnishes—both carefully placed and intentional in flavour and texture.”
6. Choose the right plates
Michael Welch, the executive chef at Backyard Kitchen & Tap in Pacific Beach, California, preaches using the right plate size, colour, and style. The colour of plate matters as the plate serves as the canvas for your food.
“Typically, chefs will stay away from blue plates as there isn’t any naturally blue food and it is thought to be an unappetising colour,” he says. “If you have something with a lot of vibrant colour, it might stand out better on a white plate.”
Jim Solomon echos the importance of choosing the right vessel to present your dish. “Choose a dish vessel that makes it easy for your guest to eat. This is also an opportunity for your chefs to show their personality in the dishes they create.”
7. Serve smaller portion sizes
Smaller portion sizes were named by the National Restaurant Association as one of the top five hottest restaurant concepts for 2019.
Of course, you still want to serve enough food to satisfy your guests and portion sizes can vary depending on the type of establishment you’re operating, but smaller portions are typically easier to style.
Stick to no more than six elements on each dish to prevent them from looking overcrowded.
8. Use edible garnishes and decorations
Garnishes and decorations are a great way of styling your dish, but there are some guidelines you should follow when using them.
Whatever you use—whether it’s a herb, spice, or a flower—it needs to be edible. Everything on your plate should be placed with the intention of elevating the dishes taste first, and the way it looks second.
9. When in doubt, keep it simple
Michael Welch also emphasises the value of simplicity.
“Overcrowding the plate with unnecessary oils or spices or microgreens just takes away from the food you worked so hard to make,” he explains. “Subtraction is your best ingredient.”
Rather than piling on a zillion garnishes or swirls of sauce, let the quality of the cooking speak for itself.
“A properly seared steak with some fresh watercress and perfectly roasted baby potatoes will look better than the fanciest of plates with subpar cookery,” Welch says. “Proper cooking will give you a lot of contrast within your ingredients with both texture and colour.”
10. Express yourself
There’s an art in plating food; it’s where chefs can allow themselves to be creative and have a high impact on how guests perceive the dishes they’re eating.
Chef Brian Poe of Bukowski Tavern in Cambridge, and Parish Café and Tip Tap Room in Boston, believes that chefs should approach food presentation and plating just as an artist would approach their next piece.
“Presentation should be approached just like art, cooking, and music,” says Poe. “Take a moment to relax and look at what the others are doing, learn a bit of the technique and then find your own voice and style.”
One of Poe’s favourite approaches is to go “Jackson Pollock,” holding out the plate like a canvas and splattering it with sauce. “Other times we might look toward a more linear approach with could either be Picasso or street graffiti style,” he adds. “Other times the negative space technique might work.”
Time-saving tools to help your food preparation
Beautifully plating food takes time. While you want it to look great, you need to plate your food fast as possible—especially if it’s a hot dish that you don’t want to go cold before it reaches your guests.
Now, you can’t help how long it takes to properly cook and prepare a meal, but you can give your chefs more time to prepare dishes by streamlining your ordering process.
Lightspeed point of sale enables service staff to quickly take a guest’s order and send it to the appropriate kitchen workstation in seconds.
Kitchen staff see orders in real-time on their kitchen display system and can notify servers as soon as the dish is ready to be run to guests. Over the course of a service, those saved seconds compound and enable kitchen staff to spend time getting food presentation and plating techniques just right.
The right restaurant technology can streamline your ordering and food preparation, which gives your cooks more time to create dishes with strong visual appeal.
Food plating and presentation matters
When consumers dine out, they expect their food to taste great and be visually appealing. That, along with your restaurant’s interior design, are all instrumental to the quality of their dining experience.
When plating your dishes, each element matters equally: colour, arrangement, balance, texture, and how easy it is for guests to eat. If you hit each of these out of the park, you’re setting yourself up to get rave reviews and user-generated content that you can share on your Facebook and Instagram for some extra publicity.