By Shay Spence

In the culinary world, it is often said that we eat with our eyes first. If something doesn’t look appetizing, people won’t want to eat it, regardless of whether the flavor is on point.

You know when you are scrolling through Facebook, minding everybody else’s business and are suddenly bombarded with a picture of some blurry, washed-out mess on a plate? “Home-cooked dinner!”, the caption proudly boasts. I’m sure your spinach lasagna tastes great, Aunt Susan, but right now, it looks like the Wicked Witch of the West just melted into a puddle on your plate.

A portion of ICE’s Culinary Arts curriculum involves learning how not to be that person. The final week of Module 3 is dedicated to one thing: plating. Sure, you learn delicious new recipes using spectacular ingredients (hello, foie gras!), but for once, the primary focus is on presentation, not flavor.

Shrimp salad with carrot-ginger puree and cilantro oil.

Shrimp salad with carrot-ginger puree and cilantro oil

Part of working in a kitchen, particularly that of a fine dining establishment, is paying meticulous attention to detail while keeping up with the fast-pace of a restaurant—a balance so difficult to achieve, it feels almost contradictory. Each plate must be flawlessly beautiful, then replicated over and over and over again.

Pan-roasted venison with butternut squash two ways and maitake mushrooms

Pan-roasted venison with butternut squash two ways and maitake mushrooms

During this third Module, my classmates and I got our first taste of plating under intense pressure and the difficulty and excitement that come along with it. We went through the components that make up a dish, all revolving around the concept of “balance”—balance of texture, color, shape, and (of course) flavor. This balance is what differentiates a “nice” dish from a “spectacular” dish.

As our chef-instructor taught us on the first day, it should look like all the elements of the plate fell from the sky and landed exactly in the right spot. The average diner might not notice the balance of these four components when done right, but will certainly take notice when they are done wrong.

Hamachi crudo with roasted beets and wasabi cream

Hamachi crudo with roasted beets and wasabi cream

While I was initially unenthused by the prospect of spending a week learning how to put food on a plate (how hard can it be?), it turned out to be one of my favorite weeks in culinary school thus far. There is something very rewarding about taking the various components of a dish—all of which you have worked hard to prepare—and combining them into a beautiful and cohesive creation. These are the practical skills that my classmates and I need to succeed in the culinary industry, not to mention our social media lives. After this week, I am confident I’ll never find myself pulling an Aunt Susan!


What makes an attractive plate?

Seems like an easy question, but the more you think about the answer, the more complicated it becomes. After all, who’s to say what is or isn’t attractive? While beauty does lie in ‘the eye of the beholder,’ there are certainly ways of putting food on to a plate that ‘only a mother could love.’

This week I decided to take a look at one dish and play with different ways of getting the same ingredients on the plate to see if I could figure out the ultimate answer to “What makes an attractive plate?” To my surprise I found more than one answer.

First up, the dish:

Crab Salad with Yellow Curry Cream, Watermelon, Avocado and Lime

It’s an ingredient list that satisfies 3 of the 4 benchmarks of a good plate. There’s Color — red, yellow, green and white; Texture — tender, crisp, creamy, soft; Flavor — which if I do (humbly) say so myself, was quite good; and the manipulated variable would be Shape — what form will each ingredient take and how do they land on the plate? If I do it right the result should look too good to eat.

More…

I’ve helped over 300 students select their externship in the time that I’ve been at ICE. So, when it came time for me to decide, I thought I had it pretty much covered. I decided to challenge myself in a restaurant where I imagined I would learn speed and be in a place that feels familiar to me given my past front-of-house experience. My decision was a Spanish restaurant on the Upper West Side named Graffit. Aside from loving all things Spanish, I had known Chef Jesus Nunez for some time and was really attracted to his philosophy of combining food and art as well as building a family-like team. So, I informed my advisor of the details, an agreement for my 210-hour externship was put in place, and I was ready to embark on my first professional back-of-house experience.

All I really remember from my first day at Graffit is that I felt hot. As I made my way up to the kitchen in my checkered pants, an unmarked chef coat and my big black kitchen shoes, I was introduced to my new pastry mentor, Rachel, and instantly felt myself start to sweat. I had a sudden flashback of walking into the kitchen at Extra Virgin, seeing the line cooks with beads of sweat rolling down their faces as they worked through our Friday night rush. At that time, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of what it was like to work in a kitchen. Even in my role at ICE, I have visited numerous kitchens and learned about the lifestyle of a cook by reading books like Kitchen Confidential and having countless conversations with chefs. I knew from these experiences, that life in the kitchen was hard and meant long hours. I had stood for hours greeting and seating guests while working front-of-house, but working in a kitchen is just so much more physical than I ever expected — up and down the stairs to the prep area, back and forth to the walk-in, moving in the rhythm of a kitchen that during service is nothing short of organized chaos. Within a week, I learned my first lesson: front-of- house is not back-of-house. More…

Yesterday, one of ICE’s own staff gave a unique demo on plating and dish presentation. Susie Noona works as part of ICE’s Special Events team and is famed here for her beautiful presentations and detailed garnishes on trays and plates of hors d’oeuvres. For the demo, she covered different techniques and ideas for plating. For example, she said, “Red and yellow are hypnotic colors. They make you want to eat.” Some of her other tips included keeping to odd numbers and always making sure the plate looked full. She talked about color, design, texture and how the plating and garnishes could best highlight the food.