Like traditional art forms, plating design relies on specific methods to capture the eye and evoke emotion. But there’s another complicating factor—and perhaps the most important one—when it comes to cuisine: taste. With food as the artistic medium, the organization and proportions of ingredients are essential not only to the aesthetic, but to the flavor of the dish and how the diner experiences it. Today, chefs around the world are placing more importance on the way their culinary creations are arranged on the plates—and just like in other forms of art, color, texture and overall composition play important roles. But adding the element of taste ensures that they pay careful attention to how the dish will be eaten as well as the presentation.
In Laguna, art and cuisine share a space in local culture and are often blended together. For the last decade, the Laguna Art Museum has hosted Palette to Palate, an annual fundraiser that brings together quality artists and chefs. Cuisine is even incorporated into the art festivals, with special foodie events, gourmet vendors and Tivoli Too serving epicurean meals each summer during Art-A-Fair. But beyond these celebrations, area chefs make their dishes into works of art every day.
The Loft at Montage Laguna Beach: Pan-Seared Maine Scallops
When chef de cuisine Casey Overton is designing a dish, he prioritizes how the guest will eat it. He aims for every bite to be perfect and packed with flavor; when he creates his pan-seared Maine scallops, he avoids putting the garnishes on the opposite side of the plate, opting instead to place them throughout the dish. The intense, juicy flavor of roasted Concord grapes complements the sweetness of the scallops—according to Casey, they’re “what every grape should be.” He also blends the flavors of the earthy parsnip puree with black truffle verjuice to create a sweet and savory meal.
“I think it’s important when you make a dish at home to think of balance,” Casey says. Instead of focusing on one component, he recommends bringing together a variety of textures and flavors that taste great together, then focus on the technique for designing the plate so that each ingredient is a part of each bite.
Andrea at The Resort at Pelican Hill: Four-Cheese Triangle Ravioli
When crafting Andrea’s four-cheese triangle ravioli, chef Marco Criscuolo says it’s important to make the dish unique in both flavor and presentation—without overcomplicating it. The entree includes fresh pasta made on-site every day, as well as a chestnut puree, micro carrots and amaretti crumble; Marco says texture is important: Mix crunchy and creamy ingredients or add color to the meal with shaved vegetables.
When it comes to mastering aesthetic, the chef recommends drafting a dish on paper before creating it, but also says that the best dishes can be sophisticated without too many design elements. One simple yet effective approach he uses for the ravioli is contrasting the shape of the pasta with a square or rectangular plate.
enoSteak at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel: Crab Salad
A spin on the traditional Crab Louie, chef Steve Wan’s crab salad is meant to capture the guest’s attention and entice their appetite. Crafted with Dungeness crab, avocado, heirloom tomato, frisee, quail eggs and trout roe, Steve says the salad focuses on flavor first and foremost, but since it is served cold, more time can be spent on design—the presentation includes small portions on a larger plate to create negative space for a more elegant look.
Steve also uses a variety of colors when preparing a plate and changes the garnishes with the season. For your own dishes, Steve says, “Have fun with it and play around. Think outside the box.” He recommends experimenting with painting, splattering or drizzling sauces, and stacking ingredients to give your cuisine height and balance. Steve also suggests working on design elements before adding the protein to keep the meal fresh.
Broadway by Amar Santana: Japanese Hamachi Sashimi
This appetizer features a simple plating design that showcases what chef Amar Santana calls “the heart of the dish”—fresh sashimi-grade hamachi, also known as yellowtail. Since the diner’s eyes tend to gravitate toward the middle of the plate, he says that is where he typically places his ingredients: The hamachi is set over a tangy orange miso sauce then topped with avocado sorbet, cilantro and jalapeno, providing a colorful course. He advises home cooks take a similar approach, displaying fresh, seasonal ingredients at the center of the dish.
“I look at plate design like a painting,” Amar says. “I want to use complementary flavors and textures the same way a painter uses complementary colors to visually excite the viewer.”
Stonehill Tavern at The St. Regis Monarch Beach: Butterscotch Custard
End your night right with a beautifully crafted dessert, like pastry chef Maren Henderson’s butterscotch custard. Made with cider apples, frosted flakes, goat’s milk caramel and quince sorbet, Maren utilizes classic techniques in a modern way. The custard serves as a centerpiece, surrounded by sliced apples and a quenelle of creme fraiche. The caramel is drizzled over the other ingredients, and then the dish is finished off with the sorbet and frosted sheets of strudel.
Before deciding on design, determine the production details: Consider temperature, texture and how you will prepare the dish. “Most of all, don’t be afraid to fail,” Maren says. “Sometimes a different outcome leads us to new, exciting things.”
—Written by Ashley Ryan