When it comes to eating out, the old adage that “first impressions count” holds plenty of weight. It’s an undeniable truth that a dish’s visual appearance has the power to either enthral or disappoint – and that’s before we’ve taken our first bite.
The molecular gastronomy trend – led by international chefs such as Ferran Adrià, Grant Achatz and their ilk – brought progressive, radical plating approaches into our dining lexicon. Think liquid nitrogen, wood-smoked water, meat dressed as fruit and breadcrumbs masquerading as sand.
While in its creative grip, Australian chefs honed an arsenal of elaborate presentational tricks. For a while there over the past decade, it felt as though there were smears, soils and tweezered micro herbs at every turn. But with the steady casualisation of restaurant dining, our interest in haute plating has waned. Which makes us wonder: was it all just smoke and mirrors?
Sure, an intellectual deconstruction of aclassic dish can be thought provoking and titillating, but does it really have an impact on our enjoyment? And how much of what we’re being wowed by is really just the chef’s ego? According to Prix Fixe executive chef Philippa Sibley, good chefs practise restraint. She says it’s difficult to distil any “golden rules” when it comes to plating up, other than that the skill comes with experience. “It’s about balance and instinct – and about knowing what works, and what doesn’t” – something you can’t teach a first-year apprentice overnight.
That’s not to say she hasn’t done her fair share of intricate plating. During the ’80s and ’90s Sibley worked in Michelin-starred kitchens in Europe, where turned vegetables and tricky tians were du jour. “In those days there was a lot of central positioning. The elements would always be set in the centre of the plate using a ring – rings for everything,” she recalls. “And things were always stacked [hence, the rings]. And there were a lot of quenelles back then.”
Nowadays, like many Melbourne chefs, she leans towards what she describes as, “a fairly rustic style of plate dressing”. She makes a notable exception with desserts, though. “They need to be whimsical and a bit silly”, something that has become somewhat of a trademark for the chef.
For her recent French Revolution-inspired menu at Prix Fixe, Sibley’s knack for theatre and surprise were on display. Deceptively simple-looking gougères got the piping bag treatment, injected with a molten gruyere cheese right before plating. Soft poached eggs were lavishly cloaked in a thick red-wine emulsion only to ooze forth on breaking. And the showpiece, her “Let them eat cake” dessert, saw an innocent-looking square of chocolate cake given an over-the-top crown of gold dust-flecked “hair”. This took the form of almond milk sorbet, piped on in the likeness of Marie Antoinette’s powdery coif.
Although he dabbled in using foams and precision plating in some of Melbourne’s swankier Italian restaurants (Il Bacaro, Sarti), chef Riccardo Momesso never lost touch with his southern Italian roots. At Valentino Calabrian Kitchen in Hawksburn, his plates are an expression of those roots; unfussy, unadorned and real. It’s where he’s most comfortable, and he says that his regulars (often families) relate to the honesty too.
“Italian food is all about simplicity,” he says. “It doesn’t start on the plate or even in the kitchen with Italian food, it starts on the land, with really good produce.”
Just looking across the marble-topped counter of Valentino’s antipasto bar, you’ll see a bounty of beautifully prepared seasonal produce, all served in the same heavy crystal bowls that his mother once used for family feasts at casa Momesso (Momesso cheekily admits to taking them without asking). The scene is homey and unpretentious, but still mightily seductive.
Parsley-flecked roasted pine mushrooms sit upturned, whole chargrilled peppers (grown by Momesso’s uncle) nestle together in their dish “like two lovers” under olive oil, while fried zucchini flowers arrive unadorned on a terracotta plate with nothing more than a length of recycled menu paper to keep them in place.
During his years working in Michelin-starred kitchens in France, Momeso says that plating was much more precise and technical. “They call a square a square art of perfection.” He says Italians are not so interested in knife techniques and perfect plating, but more in the raw ingredient. “We grow most of our own produce [for the restaurant] and the big thing for us is picking everything at just the right time. It’s like a Ferarri, you know? If the quality is good you don’t have to make it look good, it just looks good!”
For Dave Verheul of Carlton’s The Town Mouse, the creative influence on plating is even more literal. Not only does Verheul present his dishes with impressive visual flair – pretty jumbles of tiny edible flowers, palette-like assemblage, judiciously placed herb fronds – but in most cases, he also makes the dramatic and earthy stoneware dishes they’re served on, too (he moonlights as a rather talented ceramicist).
For a chef pitching to the mid-range diner, Verheul’s detailed technique could be considered more effort than strictly necessary. Tricky plating can be rationalised in high-end restaurants that have a squadron of chefs and the menu prices to back it up, but when you’re in a small kitchen with a tiny team, it’s quite a different matter.
When quizzed on the challenges of executing such beautifully composed plates under the time pressure of a busy service, the expat Kiwi remains relaxed, “There are always time challenges with cooking and plating food at any level. For us, this is part of the challenge. We tend to put new dishes on that are too hard to plate at first, but it gets easier and quicker once you get used to the rhythm of the dish.”
While Verheul’s meticulous style is inspired and well received, it is outside the current norm. An explanation for the shift could be the industry’s general move away from fine dining and the subsequent rise of high turnover, mid-range dining. It seems that instead of flexing their plating muscles, more chefs are focusing on the ingredients to supply the wow factor.
As for the view from the dining room, any public backlash can most likely be attributed to the school of plating up that relies less on good produce and more on redundant exhibitionism. When obvious trends reach saturation point, dining out can sometimes feel like Groundhog Day, so a shift in gears is always refreshing.
In the wash-up, what really matters most is that a dish is delicious. While we’ve welcomed some of the more experimental plating trends of the past decade, the ones that truly wowed us were those that backed it up by tasting great. As diners, we’re more savvy than ever about seasonality and provenance. Now more than ever, it seems it is these elements that chefs emphasise ahead of aesthetics, which is something we’re happy to embrace.