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The Art of Plating with Mark Ladner, Timon Balloo, JacquesLM + More

Dinner table at White Rabbit, Dalston, London
The best plate? An empty one, after a great meal. Table at White Rabbit, Dalston, London. Photo: Andrea Feldman

Plating. It’s an art, it’s a science, it integrates cooking (making things taste good) with styling (making things look good).

Plating styles aren’t just the whim of individual chefs, but are reflective of larger cultural trends in merchandising, food/prop styling — even art.

We eat with our eyes as much as our other senses, and visual aesthetics — symmetry, color palette, the food’s arrangement on the plate — actively contribute to the pleasure of eating a dish. A new study by chef and scientist Charles Michel and published in Food Quality and Preference found that “people are willing to pay significantly more for a dish with greater eye appeal.”

“The quality of the ingredients is above everything,” notes Michel. “But presentation (or plating) is the last detail where we can all seek beauty every day.”

Developing an instinct for plating takes practice and focus, as well as an inherent sense of what looks visually appealing on the plate, including:

  • Layout (think of the plate like a clock face)
  • Focal point (generally the protein)
  • Geometry (balance of symmetrical and asymmetrical elements)
  • Color palette (including complementary colors)
  • Three-dimensional elements (while being careful not to go overly architectural)

It’s important that chefs keep their egos out of the process, lest they stray too far down the rabbit-hole of their own artistry. Examples of putting a dish’s Instagram Factor ahead of the diners’ experience:

  • The Bermuda Triangle
  • The Multi-Schmear
  • The Yin-Yang
  • The Constructivist

Steering clear of plating clichés is equally important. We’ve all known chefs who turn their plates into mini-Jackson Pollocks splattered with multi-colored dots of sauce — or cram everything into Mason jars, the hipster trend that just.won’t.die.

We asked some JWU chefs, department chairs + alumni — and one wild card — to share their plating advice and pet peeves.

Elegant lobster dish from Instagram sensation Chef Jacques La Merde.
Instagram superstar/hashtag genius Jacques La M went seriously elegant with his special plate just for us. His description: “IMITATION LOBSTER, WASABI PEA GRANOLA, AERATED KEWPIE MAYO, ONION FLAVORED NORI SHARDS, TINY PIECES OF SCALLION RING, KIMCHI ASH, CANNED WATERCHESTNUTS, GOJUCHANG!!!!” | Photo: Jacques La M

If you had one piece of advice to help novice chefs “level up” in their plating, what would that be?

Mark Ladner '90 (Del Posto/Pasta Flyer): Deft spoon play. Time and practice a must. Like anything, patience — and no shortcuts.

Timon Balloo '00 (Sugarcane Raw Bar/Bocce Miami): Think about the bite. I think plating should reflect not only art but the point of the food that goes into the mouth.

TJ Delle Donne CEC '04, '07 MAT (JWU Providence): Think of plating like building anything else. A house won’t work without a good foundation and a good roof. Above all, make sure there is balance — the right amount of textures and flavors, and put together is a way that doesn’t require an owner’s manual to eat.  The best way to learn is by doing — and by doing I mean having at it! And look at other chefs — all artists are inspired. There are brilliant books out there from brilliant chefs that are doing amazing/simple food.

Branden Lewis '04, '06 MBA (JWU Providence): Study — but not in a traditional sense. Nature is abstract. Chefs study and practice for years to make carrots into perfect cubes, bending the carrot to their will, rather than looking at the carrot’s POV. Can you bend your preparation to the carrot? To its shape, sweetness, seldom-used components? I recommend that students study finished plates, food porn and photos from their favorite chefs. Like studying fine art, they’ll gain sensibilities about genres, an opinion and most important, integrity (hopefully). 

James Mark '08 (north/north Bakery): Think about how the diner is going to eat the dish, and think about it from their perspective. Think about why well-made nachos are awesome.

Jacques LaM (Soigné Instagram genius who creates haute cuisine out of junk food): YO DON’T TRY TO CRAM 2 MUCH STUFF ON THERE. THINK LOTS OF INGREDIENTS, V. SMALL AMOUNTS OF FOOD. BY INCORPORATING A LOT OF MICROGREENS, U CAN ALSO AVOID THE EMBARRASSING SITUATION OF GIVIN PPL 2 MUCH 2 EAT!!!!

Minimalist asparagus plate at St. John Bread & Wine, London.
The art of simplicity: This plate of asparagus with hot butter + a dusting of Coolea is a great example of letting beautiful ingredients shine through ultra-minimal plating. St. John Bread & Wine, London. Photo: Andrea Feldman

When you were learning, did you have an “aha!” moment in your plating skills? What happened?

Timon: I started to care more about the bite and flavor rather than only visual. Abandon needless garnish — sometimes less is more!

Mark: Confidence and deliberate, calculated movements are helpful.

TJ: When I’m putting a plate together and I’m moving things too much or it just looks too placed, I freak out. “Aha!” is when it just seems to plate itself.

James: I was plating with only a thought for visual line and form, and assuming the diner would eat the dish as I thought it should be eaten. But dinner doesn’t (and shouldn’t) come with an instruction manual.

Branden: “Aha!” happens every time I put together a good looking plate. If you’re true to your technique, then it’s the ultimate reward.

Jacques: NO BRO!!! STILL FIGURING IT OUT. SOMETIMES THINGS FLOW, SOMETIMES I HAVE 2 JUST CHECK OUT WUT EVERYONE ELSE IS DOIN’ AND COPY IT!!

Do you have a single, bulletproof plating pet peeve? If so, name it!

James: When a dish is so spread apart that it’s not cohesive.

TJ: 3,6,9 cafeteria-style with the most absurd tall garnishes, like fried spaghetti or rosemary sprigs …yikes!

Mark: I don’t personally like symmetry or contrived or linear plating styles. Food must be allowed to act and behave like food. It’s better to “guide” food onto the plate, rather than place it on the plate.

Branden: Trying too hard to make it land perfectly symmetrical on the plate. We all fall into it sometimes and I catch students doing it too. “Stop moving the asparagus around on the plate. You’re just smearing everything!” Or, “Quit wiping the sauce, you're just making it worse!” We’ve all said these things.

Jacques: PLATE HOWEVER U WANT!!! JUST MAKE SURE U HAVE GOOD LIGHTING AND A CLEAN LENS BEFORE U GO SPRAYIN UR PICS ALL OVER INSTAGRAM. A HANDTHROWN ARTISANAL CERAMIC PLATE NEVER HURTS EITHER!!!!

Take the #artofplating conversation to Twitter:
JacquesLaM (or on Instagram)
Chef Mark Ladner
Chef Timon
Chef TJ
Branden Lewis
Food by North (James Mark)

Further Reading:
Class x Class: Conscious Cuisine
Mark Ladner + Lena Kwak Talk Gluten-Free

Dots and loops: Passion fruit tart with toasted marshmallows + black sesame by WD~50’s Malcolm Livingston III (now at Noma). | Photo: Andrea Feldman

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Topics: Interviews Alumni