Dish Presentation: Fashion vs. Function

Have you ever been presented with the food you ordered and said “Wow! How beautiful!” You then pick up your fork, about to dig in and…found yourself at a total loss for how to start eating the dish?

You’re not alone.

Presentation is of paramount importance for almost any dish or food item, in all corners of the food world. Whether it’s a Michelin-caliber award-winning plate or a gyros sandwich from a food truck, presentation still resonates both with the diner and the people preparing that food. However, personally speaking, from a very early point in my culinary career, I’ve felt that a lot of presentation techniques I’ve encountered were counterproductive regarding how a guest was meant to actually eat the dish.

For example (as Glenn the restaurant customer) the other day, my wife and I were sampling a brunch spot in our new town. I ordered juevos rancheros with pork chili verde. As a chef, my level of familiarity with this dish means it would come with two eggs, black beans, pork in green sauce, and a flour tortilla. Upon arrival the dish had two sunny side-up eggs laid neatly over the top. The bright white and yellow of the eggs was tastefully garnished with sliced green scallion. It looked great; very vibrant colors popped from all over the plate.

But upon further inspection, I noticed the tortilla that I planned to use to eat the beans and pork was folded into a quarter, and buried under the main components of the plate (the eggs), with only a couple centimeters of the edge sticking out onto the rim of the plate. This rendered the tortilla functionally useless, until I could eat enough of the food away and access more of the tortilla to unfold and use it, by which point it would no longer be needed.

I’m sure I’m not the first customer to have had this problem. I’m also sure it had been the topic of several discussions between the Chef and Manager or owner. But alas, someone, somewhere, at some time deemed that was how the dish was to be plated. Convenience of our patrons be damned!

Garnishes can provide a similar phenomenon as well, which drives me crazy! I’m very much of the perspective that if something is put on a plate, it should be with the intention of the diner eating it. I hate the random sprig of rosemary or parsley just placed on top of the food or the half orange slice on the side of a dish — although I’m not as opposed to the fine-chopped parsley meant to introduce some green color to the plate, as many of my contemporaries are.

Why would a chef put something on top of their dish that will just be removed and put on a bread plate as soon as the entree hits the table?

My theory: sometimes, the inconvenience of eating a dish is a bi-product of someone discovering a new technique (or concept) that results in food that is more akin to a sculpture than something meant to fall under fork and knife.

Years ago, I was having breakfast at a trendy brew-pub owned and operated by the family of a friend of mine. I ordered what the menu declared to be a “bacon-wrapped egg”. At the time, I’d never heard of this, and couldn’t quite figure out what it meant, so I ordered it to find out. A plate was put in front of me that had a strip of bacon cooked in the shape of a ring with a cooked egg neatly contained inside. I got a big kick out of it, particularly because it made me try really hard to figure out how they’d done it. Then I picked up my fork and knife and was face-to-face with the challenge at hand: actually eating this great presentation.

The plate used for the dish was flat with no rim, so I didn’t want to cut into the bacon cup and have it spill egg yolk all over the table. Also, since I’ve never eaten crispy bacon with a fork and knife I was somewhat at a loss for how to do so. Confronted with this delightfully playful plating conundrum that was also impossible to actually eat, I thought of Jeff Goldblum’s character, Dr. Ian Malcom’s from Jurassic Park, where he says “You were so caught up in wondering if you could, but you never stopped to think if you should!”

I understand that designing menus and the dishes to go on those menus is already difficult enough. Decisions on plating, portion size, and the sides or garnishes that go on each plate all have a ripple effect throughout the administrative functions of a kitchen and restaurant. But I do believe that chefs everywhere, need to do a better job of remembering that the customer experience is the main concern (my wife, whose in tech, is cheering).

Don’t worry, we’re coming to the end of my rant. Here it is:

Dear Chefs,

Every dish you create — before you serve it to a guest — fire one. Plate it, garnish it, and eat it yourself. If that last part presents a challenge, your work is not yet done.

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