By Ryan Ross, Foodable Contributing Editor
In the past ten or fifteen years, we’ve seen the culinary world undergo a massive evolution. From the rise of the “celebrity chef” to molecular gastronomy to food trucks, the culinary scene is constantly evolving; in fact, sometimes it’s difficult just to keep track of all the changes. But if you’ve followed the culinary industry for a while, you know there’s another major contributor to a chef's creations: the art of plating.
As the title suggests, plating isn’t really a “new” trend- a chef’s presentation of a dish has been around almost as long as those cooking the dishes. But lately, more and more chefs are looking to plating as a way to set their creations apart from everyone else’s. What’s more, a lot of chefs are also working to make the presentation of their dishes as important a factor in their guests’ experience as the food itself.
To get a little more perspective, we talked to two of the best chefs in the industry: Chef Diego Oka (Executive Chef at Miami’s La Mar at Mandarin Oriental) and Chef Jeffrey Williams (Executive Chef of NIOS at The Kimpton Muse Hotel). We wanted to find out their view of plating as an art form, their inspiration for the presentation of their dishes, and the role plating plays in their cooking. Read on to learn more about their approach to plating- you might find yourself coming up with ideas you can use in your own kitchen.
Chef Diego Oka, La Mar Miami
Chef Diego got his start working as an intern for Chef Gaston Acurio in Peru in 2001, and after four months of learning from one of the world’s premier chefs, Diego made his way up the ladder at a variety of restaurants before creating the menu at Gaston’s La Mar in Lima, Peru. Following the success of La Mar in Lima, Diego helped open locations in Mexico City, Colombia, and San Francisco, and in 2014, Diego took the reins at La Mar at Miami’s Mandarin Oriental hotel.
Since opening, La Mar has been one of the most popular restaurants in Miami, and part of that success is due to the unique presentation of the menu offerings. But in talking with Chef Diego, he made one thing clear: “I don’t consider myself an artist- I’m a cook first.” Diego did acknowledge the importance of presentation, however: “Presentation is important; customers have to be in love with the dish at first sight!” He also made it clear that proper presentation involves much more than just the dish itself. Diego’s motto is “Less is more” when it comes to the dish itself, but he also pointed out that “plating is not only the food, it is more than that: the china, the ambience, the temperature, and so on.”
Unlike a lot of chefs whose primary focus is the way a dish looks, Diego is mainly concerned with making sure the dish meets his high standards for how it tastes. “The ingredients are most important, followed by the flavors and then the plating,” he says. And although he loves the challenge of traditional artistic pursuits like painting and creating, to Diego, plating is “a kind of art,” a unique challenge whose visual aspect is just one part of the overall sensory picture. As a result, Diego prefers to wait until the flavors of the dish reveal themselves before committing to a specific visual presentation. “Sometimes,” he says, “[the dish] evolves to become even more beautiful.
Chef Jeffrey Williams, NIOS at Kimpton Muse
Chef Jeffrey Williams was introduced to the art of cooking at a young age, helping his grandfather in the kitchen at home. These early experiences ingrained in him a lifelong passion for the culinary arts, and he took that passion to Baltimore International College. After graduation, Jeffrey’s career began in earnest, including time at STK West Hollywood as Executive Sous Chef, Executive Chef at The Culver Hotel, Chef de Cuisine at The W San Diego, and as Corporate Executive Chef at Chopps in Burlington, Massachusetts. In December 2016, Jeffrey was named the Executive Chef at NIOS at the Kimpton Muse Hotel in New York City, and as his early success at NIOS has shown, his star continues to rise in the culinary world.
Like many chefs, Jeffrey considers the presentation of his dishes to be an extension of his personality. “Plating is a chef’s individuality on a plate,” he explains. “A career of experiences in plate form.” And though Jeffrey says he always took notice of how restaurants plated their dishes before he ever set foot in a kitchen, he credits his externship at Fork in Philadelphia as cementing the importance of plating. “They let their cooks incorporate their own dishes on the menu, so they took pride and were a little competitive (as most of us are) in plating.”
Jeffrey’s approach to plating is similar to Diego’s; specifically, that plating is a key component of the overall dining experience. “I’m a strong believe in flavor first, but I also understand that people eat with their eyes first – especially these days with Facebook and Instagram,” he says. “I start by creating the flavor profile I want to achieve, then go into the components and decide how to plate or modify them.”
There is no specific source for Jeffrey’s inspiration. “I draw inspiration from all over: a local ramen shop or a random piece of plateware,” he says. And in some cases, the inspiration for the dish comes from the ingredients themselves: “Sometimes I plate around a featured ingredient that I want to be the highlight of the dish.” Spoken like a true artist.
If the longevity of plating as an art form tells us anything, it’s that the presentation of a dish is much more than a fly-by-night fad. As Chef Oka and Chef Williams both mentioned, the way a dish is plated can be the difference between a good meal and a profound experience. And though a lot of culinary trends have come and gone in recent years, it’s safe to say that the art of plating is one that will stand the test of time.