February 1, 1999

12 Min Read
The Eyes Feast First

The Eyes Feast First
February 1999 -- Culinary Connection

By Francis Talyn Lynch

  When it comes to creating foods with eye appeal, restaurant chefs have it relatively easy. Timing gives us an edge, especially when considering the task set before many R&D chefs - that of creating foods destined to be packaged and eaten at a later time. As a restaurant chef, I'm able to bring foods to that critical stage of preparation at which freshness, color, aroma, texture and flavor are at their peak. This is what the French call à point, when the food can be "served forth" immediately. And I have yet another advantage as well - a setting that allows me to arrange the food using presentation techniques that create a veritable "feast for the eyes."

  In contrast, chefs in the home-meal-replacement and packaged-foods fields, whose dishes are to be eaten hours or perhaps months later, must take a different approach to the concept of à point. Pre-prepared foods often have extra ingredients such as stabilizing starches, gums and preservatives that extend shelf life. These ingredients often replace processes such as sauce reduction, or ingredients such as fresh eggs whose flavors and textures are difficult to duplicate exactly.

  Delivering packaged foods that provide a feast for the eyes when finally served is a tough job. Preserving prepared foods by chilling, freezing, holding hot, or by packaging at room temperature further affects the R&D chef's ability to present his or her foods in the best possible light.

Plate presentation 101

  Despite the obstacles, R&D chefs do certainly develop recipes that are both delicious and satisfying. Nevertheless, perhaps some of the techniques restaurant chefs use to make preparations attractive can be adapted by chefs in the manufacturing sector. With that in mind, here are a few guiding principles and common practices.

  Cook it right. Sounds simple, yet this is the "meat of the job," so to speak. Every chef's goal is to bring food to its correct preparation stage when served. As an R&D chef, the goal is to bring the food's recipe to the stage at which, with additional home preparation, the possibilities for over- or under-cooking are minimized. Cooking and preparation instructions on the package must be extremely clear and simple - and they must work.

  Test the instructions on products that have been held for the amount of time consumers will have to deal with, and do so on standard household appliances. Consider the following questions: Is the timing right? What is the range of possible cooking temperatures? What deviations from the recipe are allowable and still render acceptable results?

  Accurate guidelines can make or break a product. For example, overcooked vegetables look dull and taste vapid, and undercooked pasta looks dry and tastes raw and floury. Overcooked pastas and grains begin to break down, looking and tasting mushy, while poorly seared meats look gray and lack the succulence of properly caramelized meat. Strive to make your cooking-process and package instructions as accurate as possible, so that you are indeed setting up your customers for success.

  Be neat. Restaurant chefs constantly wipe plate rims and remove bits or streaks of food that have gotten into the wrong section of the plate. A Dacquoise au Chocolat at the Ritz Carlton and a cup of chocolate pudding at a truck stop in Fresno are both cleanly and neatly plated when served right. In just the same way, items in a package of prepared foods comprising a meal should be discretely plated, or unmixed. Spill-overs need to be avoided. Control the placement of menu items so that they are not errantly plated. It's a real turn-off to open a packaged entrée and discover the gratin of seasoned breadcrumbs intended for the potato is actually garnishing the meat or the rim of the tray.

  Sauce foods with restraint and control. Don't hide foods under a blanket of gravy or sauce. Apply sauce in a ribbon, letting meat, pasta or vegetables - the "stars" - show up on the plate. Consider packaging sauces in their own containers, or including pouches of garnishes for sprinkling over just-heated and plated foods. Such garnishes could include grated cheeses; flavored, pre-browned crumbs or nuts; or colorful vegetables cut in Brunoise (1/8-inch dice), in diamond-shapes or in julienne.

  Use variety. Happily, foods naturally provide an enormous variety of colors, shapes, sizes, flavors and textures. Composing a plate with interesting shapes is not all that hard. For example, carrots can be cut into rounds, ovals, half-rounds or wedges. They can also be cut into batonnets (1/4 x 1/4 x 2-1/2 in.), julienned (1/8 x 1/8 x 2-1/2 in.), shredded, threaded, zested or waffle-cut.

  Rices and grains can be plated using molds that shape them into domes, cubes, rectangles or pyramids. Taking advantage of the large variety of pastas available today is a terrific way to add different shapes to a dish - ribbons, spirals, bows, squares, ovals and cylinders, for example.

  Meats can be left in their naturally cut shapes or ground up and made into round, square, triangular, oval or rectangular shapes and links. Whole meats can be sliced, cubed and cut into strips.

  Vegetables and starches can be puréed and piped into baskets, scallops and cones. These can stand alone or become borders surrounding or separating other foods. Vegetables can certainly be left in, or nearly in, their natural shapes - flowerettes of broccoli or cauliflower, spears of asparagus or whole green beans, conical cylinders of baby carrots and snow-peas in the pod, to name a few possibilities.

  Colors also add variety, and can be mixed with ease. Vegetables are beautifully accented with a few pieces of other vegetables of a contrasting color. The ubiquitous dice of red bell pepper sprinkled into a serving of green beans or corn niblets is an example of this technique.

  Use contrast. Try to avoid the "white lump presentation" of a plate of poached sole, steamed cauliflower and rice. Saucing the sole with a red-pepper coulis or an amandine treatment helps, as does topping the cauliflower with a touch of golden, green-flecked polonaise sauce, or adding a bit of wild rice to the white rice.

  This is not to say, however, that the goal is to "weave a coat of many colors" on every dish. Some menu items, while not all that fascinating to look at, are more-than-acceptable in near monochrome. For instance, a plate of fried chicken served with corn bread and buttered mashed potatoes is a fairly plain sight to behold, but a pretty sight nonetheless. Yes, the same golden yellow color is repeated over and over, but that's just the way it is supposed to be. Go ahead and mess with it - and see some Southern sparks fly! Add a nice green vegetable like broccoli rabe, toss some colorful red peppers into the corn bread, drizzle-draw buttermilk dressing over the chicken and plunk down a little garnish of arugula for fun - and then run - north! Some dishes are just kinda sacred.

The art of adornment

  I was once asked how to make a plate of spaghetti with red sauce more attractive. My answer was "don't!" If pasta is cooked al dente and sauce is tight rather than runny, simply sauce the pasta neatly, allowing some of the pasta to border the red sauce, and let it be. This classic dish is naturally attractive in its traditional simplicity.

However, if that just won't cut it for you, perhaps a last-minute application of freshly shredded Romano or Parmesan, along with a small sprig of basil or flat-leafed Italian parsley would complete the presentation nicely. In the case of a manufactured spaghetti dish, in order to make the best presentation, consider bagging pasta, sauce and cheese individually, to be combined only when plated. Because fresh herbs just don't package well enough to be included as a garnish, it's up to the home cook to supply these ingredients.

  Speaking of garnishes, it would be silly to try to package any garnish item that really ought to be fresh. A wedge of lemon or watermelon, a twisted slice of orange or a sprig of herb may be appropriate at a lunch counter or coffee shop, but most of these have fallen out of favor with contemporary chefs. Garnishes have now either worked their way into the actual recipe in the form of specially featured ingredients, or have become toppings - sprinklings of small "jewels" of colorful foods, dustings of herbs and spices, or sauces that are piped or drizzled on during plating.

  Consider showing a photo or an artist's rendering of the product as it ought to be plated on the package, demonstrating where to put the garnish. A few tips on plating would be a welcome addition to your cooking instructions, and would add value to your product. Such "mini-lessons" can distinguish your product from that of the competition, and just may enhance sales of the entire line.

Presentation patterns

  Plate layouts that effectively use repetition are very powerful "eye candy." We are naturally surrounded by patterns such as those found in the petals of a daisy, spokes on a wheel, in a spiral, or in a simple bulls-eye. These patterns repeat their lines or arcs, focusing on a center point.

  Other patterns use curved or straight lines that are parallel, nearly parallel or criss-cross. Pattern possibilities are easy to come by. For example, a sliced zucchini, when fanned out but left contiguous, forms a pleasing pattern that is accentuated by the repetitious color contrast of the vegetable's skin and flesh. Grill marks on a filet are another simple example of a pleasing, easily made pattern.

  Spears of asparagus or green beans neatly stacked in parallel rows forming a pyramid of sorts, or perhaps a fan of peapods, illustrate a few of the many usable patterns. Traying precise arrangements of vegetables in a manufacturing process is problematic, but possible. A section of sliced zucchini, for instance, could be set onto a food tray and pressed to one side, spreading out like fallen dominoes. Placing adjacent rows of green, orange or yellow vegetables in the same compartment is another possible pattern. At the very least, consider using a variety of contrasting colors, even if this is as simple as adding a julienne of carrots to the green vegetables or leaving the skins on cut potatoes.

  Desserts and pastries, on the other hand, definitely lend themselves to intricate designs that can survive packaging and consumer handling. Icings are fairly stable, and can be piped in many attractive geometric patterns. These can be further shaped by passing a sharply tipped tool across the still-soft icing to make a variety of eye-catching patterns, such as webs, fans, chevrons and checkerboards.

  Simply drizzling the icing is also very much in fashion these days. Dustings and sprinklings of crumbs, cocoa, chocolate shavings, ground spices and nuts (chopped, ground, whole, halved, slivered or sliced) are quite useful, and can be applied by either using templates, in very precise designs, or in a more random fashion.

  The multi-colored layering possible when designing pastries introduces the possibility of creating many eye-catching designs. Batters, doughs, fillings and icings of different flavors and colors make very beguiling patterns when juxtaposed in products ranging from simple miniature hand-pies and single-serving cake rolls to elaborately finished dessert cakes or pies.

Packaged goods

  The two primary functions of packaging are protecting and selling the product. If a product's picture is on its package, it is paramount that the image be a very sharp graphic. Focus should be extremely clear, the printing should be of excellent registration, and the finished food item should be realistically colored and portrayed in its ideal serving state - that is, à point.

  For this reason, a photo usually works better than an artist's drawing, because the photo more accurately conveys the ideal state of the food. A photo is also generally more believable than a drawing. For example, a picture of pastry ought to highlight the various layers in the pastry, showing what the product is all about and giving an idea of the product's flavors.

  See-through packages such as clear jars or plastic bags require the utmost in product-quality maintenance throughout the duration of the food's journey to the display space. While clear packages do allow potential buyers to see exactly what they are getting, if there has been any deterioration of the product during its trip to the store shelf, the food's appeal will be weak. Fragile items, including thin chips and most cereals, are seldom packed in see-through bags. Additionally, frozen-food packages should not be see-through unless every freezer in the downstream supply chain can be controlled. See-through packages can become opaque when water vapor inside the package crystallizes, rendering the contents nearly invisible. If a product, such as taco shells, is actually an ingredient of a larger dish, consider picturing the finished dish, i.e. the taco, on the package rather than just the item alone.

  Packaged foods are judged by their covers, just as are books. Consumers are drawn first by the package, and then again by its contents when they prepare the food at home. Be sure what they see in the store stimulates their appetites by giving them a clear impression of the food at its best.

  Engineer visual appeal into recipes and product plans from the beginning. Presenting desirable-looking food requires building an appropriate variety of flavors, textures, colors, shapes and sizes into menu items from the start, then cooking with care and neatly arranging on a plate or in a package. This process reflects a love of good food, pride in being a professional chef and respect for customers. Remember, beauty sells. The eyes feast first!

  Francis Lynch is the author of "Garnishing - A Feast For Your Eyes," available from HP Books. A professional chef and culinary educator for nearly 30 years, he also publishes "The Book of Yields," which is used by industry and educational institutions to facilitate recipe costing and analysis. Winner of the first annual Research Chefs Association Gary Holleman Award for Excellence in Technology and Communication, Lynch lives in the California Sierra foothills with his wife Marlinka and maintains the ChefDesk website at www.chefdesk.com. In addition to membership in the RCA, he belongs to the American Culinary Federation, the Society for the Advancement of Food Service Research, the National Restaurant Association, the California Restaurant Association, the Retailer's Bakery Association, Foodservice Educators Network International and the Council on Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Education.

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