Take a trip to Daniel or Eleven Madison Park, and you won’t just be blown away by the flavors of the food. The plating itself is an abstract work of art. Now that the food tower has fallen, chefs are building intricate masterpieces of color and texture that sprawl across the plate in pristine decadence.
So I enlisted a friend from the world of fine dining, Tracey Torres, to share the secrets of haute plating. Before launching her Chicago dining service More Please, Torres worked at Blackbird, Cafe Boulud, Torrisi Italian Specialties, and Dirty French. And with only a little arm twisting, she whipped up a “Pan Roasted Pork Chop with Garlic Sausage, Polenta, Stone Fruit, and Pecans,” and walked me through her plating logic, step-by-step.
If there’s one grounding philosophy, it’s delighting the customer through variety and transparency. This plating style is literal food porn–everything the chef has done is exposed. “I guess, you just want to showcase everything someone’s paying for,” she laughs. “You know how on the menu, it says, ‘pork, peaches, onions, pecans?’ You want people to see everything that’s on the menu. At least, that’s what I think.”
Step 1: Prepare Your Components
To plate like a pro, you need to first create your dish like a pro. And that’s not just about cooking well, or creating balanced, beautiful looking food. As Torres explained, Michelin-level plating is about working within a vernacular of textures, colors, and preparation methods.
“For 3-star fine dining plating, you know there’s gonna be a puree of one vegetable. There’s gonna be a sear. There’s a shave–or a chip–something with crunch,” Torres says. “Honestly, that’s sometimes how they come up with dishes. People think in their mind, ‘how can I make a sweet potato four ways?’”
On top of that, you might add a bit of charcuterie, a pickle, and a finishing sauce or two.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s definitely busy!” she laughs. “But you’re paying so much for a reason, because all this work went into it.”
Step 2: Leave White Space, Then Fill It
Torres started her plate by dropping a dollop the creamy polenta, then she added a few drops of peach puree. Note that she intentionally leaves a lot of white space at this point. Part of that is because she’s respecting a photography law in this plating–the rule of thirds–and is choosing to plate off center. But as a general workflow, she’ll create white space, then gradually fill that space with more colors and textures as she goes, beginning with her key pairings, then improvising other bites for the customer along the way.
Liquids like polenta start her plating process because they tend to ooze around during delivery to a table, and they stay more stable at the bottom of the plate. It also creates a layer of bulky glue on which she’ll lay her pork chop.
Step 3: Show The Sear And The Cook
Since she wants the polenta to definitely be eaten with the chop–a play on meat and potatoes–she’s having them touch on the plate as a pairing. But why is it sliced? And why is one of the chops turned to the side?
“I sliced it that way so you could see the sear and the cook. I could have cooked it medium rare, but I guess my skillset is lacking right now,” she laughs. There are a few reasons for this. Showcasing that maillardized meat edge, and the pink or white protein inside, creates more color and texture for you to see. (And maximizing colors and textures is all what this plating style is about.) Furthermore, for the fine diner, something like a big pork chop is always pre-cut for easier eating. It’s a luxury not to cut, essentially. And truth be told, many loyal customers of top tier fine dining establishments are an older crowd who benefit from more accessible eats.
The other big benefit of showing the sear and the cook, right on the plate benefits the customer in a less direct fashion: The kitchen is able to ensure that the protein is cooked perfectly before it goes out to the table.
Step 4: Continue To Plate Main Bites
Torres continues plating by focusing on her main pairings. Her sausage pairs with the acidic fruit puree–a play on sausage and mustard–so it’s plated close or touching, too.
“It looks weird,” she admits. “But I’m going to fit everything here and there, so it’s not compartmentalized like a lunch tray.”
Step 5: Fill The White Space With Color
With her core pairings plated, she moves on to creating more casual “bites”–things that may be nice for the customer to pair themselves or just be eaten alone. “I’m just filling in extra spaces with color and texture, too,” she says.
From here, she just has to proceed with confidence in her taste and technique to form the rest of her dish. She left her white space, and now she’s adding her plums, spring onions, and pecans to create what will feel like impromptu bites for her customer.
Note that she continues using very simple variety, though, to keep everything looking exciting. For the spring onions, she’s rotating them to show off their caramelized sear, and their milky pearl side. Her plums are cut into rounds and wedges.
There’s basically a binary state for everything on that plate: seared/white; round/wedged. These distinctions are minor, but in aggregate, they create an exponential level of complication to the final product.
Step 6: Final Saucing
The job complete, she spoons her pan sauce of cubed peaches over top of the dish. Here, she tacitly reveals her draw to more traditional, even rustic trends in dining. (After all, she could have placed that sauce in modernist spheres on the plate, or in painterly streaks.)
“To be honest, [having a big, browned pork chop on your plate], that’s the awesome part of a pork chop,” she says. “I’m kind of back to the rustic, just give me the whole thing, mode.”
Tracey Torres runs More Please, a boutique dining service in the Chicagoland area.