Really - is it that big of a deal?
By Brian Josephs, Staff Writer
When did plating become such a big deal? From eating out of leaves, coconut bowls, to the wildly extravagant plates of King Louis XIV to the small portions of high end minimalism plating - how important is the PLATE? We needed answers.
There are plenty of people out there who really don’t care about food presentation. After all, even if the peas and rice are separated on your plate, they’re going to blend together by the time it leaves your body, right? But to true culinary connoisseurs, what you’re consuming isn’t just food. It’s art. And like any art form, presentation matters.
And also like any other art form, plating has gone through its phases. The difference between the ’60s standard of positioning your proteins at 6 a.m. and your starches at 9 and the '00s trend of stacking your food is like ’90s boom bap and today’s trap beats when you’re talking rap, buff ’80s action stars and millennial comic book heroes when you’re talking movies.
The French are more responsible for that than the french fry. The stereotypical finest of fine dining plates looks pretty minimal; pre-revolution France was the exact opposite of that. King Louis XIV court had these large, ornate dinners that worked both as meals and spectacles. Of course, France wasn’t the only country with a family, but what made Louis’ unique was how heavily it invested in gastronomy. The man could dress AND eat & entertain it seems.
To get from aristocracies to middle class families, two things (well many things, but mainly two) happened. First, there was this thing called the French Revolution. The resulting fall of royal families left their chefs jobless, so they spread out to the general public to get paid for their kitchen know-how. Is a plate any good if it's not served on a plate no one in the country can afford? We disagree and digress, but this was the moment plating became stupidly ornate.
Food presentation started shifting from elaborate to practical thanks to frenchman Auguste Escoffier’s big invention, a la carte service. In English, it was a change-up from big meals on big trays with limited options off a fixed menu to a wider array of options on smaller plates. And smaller plates mean more room for creativity and individuality for each one.
Perhaps the modern turn where we really start seeing artistic plating shift from stomach-filling to minimal is the ’70s—the nouvelle cuisine era. Calories became grotesque, and to emphasize a dish’s color, flavor, and freshness, less was more.
“No more of those terrible brown sauces and white sauces, those espagnoles, those périgueux with truffles, those béchamels and mornays that have assassinated as many livers as they have covered in different foods. They are forbidden!”
Nouvelle cuisine tastemakers Henri Gault and Christian Millau
Regular portion sizes did get back in chic by the late ’80s, and the rise of TV chefs in the ’90s taught us it was OK to kick it up a notch. People still sneer at the idea of food presentation because the sight of more plate than food is too much to bear for those who simply want to nourish themselves. But the eyes are just as important as taste buds.
“The way the food looks on the plate is what tempts our eyes and makes you want to taste it,” writes Sean Bone, a Canadian chef. “Imagine how your room looks when it’s messy and how it looks when you clean it up, the same ingredients, different results. It is just as true with food presentation and how the elements are arranged on the plate.”
And besides, embracing the art of plating can actually be good for you. Try switching out the actual plate for a banana or (things area about to get wild) a lotus leaf, which is a longtime tradition in India. It adds taste to the dish and its antioxidants are believed to help prevent cancer and other diseases. Coconut bowls also look good on Instagram, but unlike glass, they’re biodegradable and good for the environment.
So while you might not be following Instagram food accounts or even care too much for collecting plates (which has been a thing since Louis XIV was even alive by the way: Marco Polo used to fawn over them during his Asia expeditions - those guys were a big strange, huh?), embracing the art of plating might be good for you in the long run.
Whatever you're eating, whatever it's on, our advice, though no one asked for it, is MAKE SURE IT TASTES GOOD.