If It Looks Good, Eat It

Once upon a time, daring engineers threatened the very heavens with dazzling feats of construction.

Of course, we are referring to that marvelous epoch a few years ago, when upscale restaurants pushed dishes to new heights--literally. Chefs stacked cuts of meat on a foundation of mashed potatoes framed by crisp vertical walls of baked pita, or piled fried herring into Dirk Diggler-sized cones of Hawaiian taro.

When it came to food presentation--the arrangement of menu items, garnishes and sauces on a plate--the bigger, they used to say, the better.

"There was a lot going on with the plates," recalls Joanne Bondy, chef at Ciudad. "There were too many flavors, too many textures. It looked great, but geez."

Ah, but food service fads are remarkably transient. Architectural presentation, where kitchen artisans piled an overwhelming assortment of garnishes in an ever taller assembly, emerged with the appearance of young celebrity chefs eager for public acclaim. But diners soon tired of deconstructing lofty towers of food. And the post-September 11 shift toward comfort foods re-emphasized the classic "clock face" presentation: veggies at 2 o'clock on the plate, a starch at 10 and an entrée plopped somewhere around 6.

"When it gets to where you can't even eat it, there's no point," says James Neel, chef-owner of Tramontana and Bistro Latino, explaining the demise of tall foods.

Yep, nowadays, chefs are more likely to spout the old "it's what you can do with it" excuse.

"I've been in the camp where everything had to be sky high," admits Marc Cassel, chef at the Green Room, "but I got better."

These days, chefs strive for a scaled-down look--something just a bit more elaborate than the unadorned clock face. "The food should speak for itself," says Garreth Dickey, chef at Tucker. "It doesn't need to be 6 feet tall off the plate. Even at home I wouldn't mold my couscous into a circle and put my lamb on top."

Given, then, this renewed interest in simplicity, this week's Burning Question, which for some reason involved no consumption of alcohol, forcing the crew to deplete our own meager stock before setting out on research excursions, ponders the efficacy of presentation.

The arrangement of food on a plate is part of an assault on the senses that begins when patrons scan menu offerings. Verbose descriptions stimulate interest in a particular menu item. Skilled presentation further influences expectations.

"It's the same as when meeting somebody for the first time," says Matt Vodner, chef at Il Sole.

Chefs firmly believe the eye educates the palate. Thus patrons will judge a dish even before tasting it. "The idea is to sound great, look great, taste great," Neel explains. "Presentation is your first chance to win them over." In essence, food service is akin to show business, with guests shelling out big wads of credit in exchange for entertainment. They expect an extra effort, particularly at fine dining establishments. Plopping an entrée onto a plate and handing it off to the server for delivery would cheat patrons of an experience.

"The garnish says we care about what you see, versus just putting it on the plate," Bondy says.

The act of decorating a service item is so ingrained that some chefs consider proper presentation as their inspiration for cooking in the first place. As a child, Neel refused to eat his breakfast pancakes unless they fried up in a neat circle. One day, his frustrated parents, tired of tossing out misshapen pancakes, challenged the youngster to do a better job.

As Neel's boyhood memory suggests, even the most basic dishes warrant a few artistic touches. "You can have an inexpensive dish, add that one little component, and it comes across as something with a little extra care," Bondy points out. "People want to see something that makes them say, 'Oh, wow.'"

Yet the new simplicity craze requires chefs to dazzle within certain limits. Accoutrements now must accentuate, but not overwhelm, the plate--a little acidity to round off a rich dish, a whiff of fresh basil to enhance the entrée's aroma as the server slides it onto the table, that sort of thing. When creating presentation ideas, chefs now consider everything from a menu item's ingredients to kitchen conditions to the balancing act as waitstaff transport the plate across a crowded dining room.

"Fresh ingredients and proper execution are the important things," Bondy reminds us. "If we do things on a plate that don't make sense, the cooks get distracted from the primary purpose."

Or, as Cassel explains, "What sucks is when it looks cool but tastes like shit. You don't want to win just the first battle."

Presentation, whether simple or elaborate, serves several purposes. It excuses the cost of a meal, injects a touch of the "wow" factor, enhances the appeal of a plate and satisfies the need for entertainment. Still, it's not the most important aspect of the dining experience.

"Mostly," Cassel concludes, "it has to look like something you'd want to eat."

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