So, you fancy yourself a home chef, do you? You may have the ability to whip up tasty tidbits for yourself, your family and your friends, but unless you know how to actually plate that deliciousness like a pro, you’re not getting full mileage out of your skills.
As most foodies already know, we eat with our eyes first. If something looks delicious, we’re bound to think it’s the best thing we’ve ever put in our mouths before we’ve actually put it in our mouths. We can’t help it—it’s how the brain works.
When it comes to plating like a real pro, however, there’s no better dude to ask than former MasterChef judge and restauranteur Graham Elliot. The celebrity chef whips up some of the most beautiful dishes we’ve ever seen—many of which are featured in his latest cookbook, Cooking Like a Master Chef: 100 Recipes to Make the Everyday Extraordinary (Atria Books, 2015).
We hit him up for some plating 101:
1. Know your audience
There’s a time to go all-out with a gussied-up plate and a time to lose the guise and let the food speak for itself. If you’re doing a dinner party for six, Elliot suggests blowing them away with “food that’s very natural looking” and beautiful.
“I always like to say it’s like you’re walking in the garden and stumbled on it, just an organic, beautiful looking thing that isn’t like, five dots on the plate with a few pieces of herbs on top,” he adds.
2. Don’t be afraid to serve family style
For larger groups of people, such as a family reunion or a backyard barbecue, Elliot says it’s sometimes best to ditch individual plates altogether and focus on making a beautiful platter instead, giving guests an all-inclusive atmosphere.
“It’s not just the way the food is plated, but it’s the atmosphere—the music and the décor,” he explains. “Then it’s having like, big family platters of grilled chicken with say, watermelon salsa over the top with some herbs.”
3. Switch up the plates themselves
The vehicle you serve your dish on is just as important as how you present the food itself. As such, Elliot recommends tying the plate into what you’ve made in the kitchen. If it’s a rustic meal, opt for “a big block of wood or stone” instead of a traditional plate. “Even a different colour, or something a little more high-end or fancy works,” he says. Using food itself as the plate (where appropriate) also works.
Want your food to really stand out? You can’t go wrong with plain old white.
“The larger the plate, the more the food is going to stand out. Some of that extra space really helps,” Elliot explains.
4. Start in the middle
Build from the middle and up if you really want to impress. That means starting with the starch and then adding on the veggies and then your protein on top. “You want it clean, tight and composed,” Elliot says.
5. Clean it up
“Make sure that if something has oil or if it’s been fried or sauteed, that you dab it off first so it’s not leaking all over the plate,” Elliot advises. Then, once it’s on the plate, clean it up a little before adding your garnishes or extra fixin’s.
6. Don’t get too fussy
Sometimes the plate isn’t going to look as Pinterest-worthy as you’d hoped—at least not right away. But by fussing and fixing to the point of annoyance, you’re probably doing more harm than good to the final product.
“If you drop something on your plate like oil or sauce or something like that, just let it lay where it is,” Elliot says. “You never want to make it look fussy and go back and wipe, and then you smear stuff all over.”
7. Use tools
Hey, you’re making a work of art, so you might as well arm yourself like an artist, right? That includes a handy squeeze-bottle for sauces, an offset spatula for flipping things or smearing a dollop of puree across the bottom of the plate, and a paintbrush. Yup, a paintbrush.
“Use something with a little blade so that the food looks beautiful on the plate, or dipping the brush in the sauce and paint the plate with it,” Elliot suggests.
Don’t have a bunch of fancy paintbrushes or an extra spatula lying around? Not a problem. A good old-fashioned spoon always works too.
“When you’re spooning something over the plate, tighten up your grip on the spoon,” Elliot says. “Choke up on it, almost like you would a baseball bat, so that you have more control.”
8. Abide by your own rules
There are some who say that garnishes should only be ingredients you’d actually find in your dish. There are also those who say that everything on the plate itself should be edible. Elliot says do what you want. It is, after all, your plate.
“When people tell me these are the rules I used to try and throw them off,” he wraps. “But at the end of the day I always say if it’s not broken, break it.”
Still hungry for more plating advice? Look no further: