There’s more to serving than simply slapping food on a plate
By Jeff Freehof

From parsley and Parmesan to lemon slices and dustings of powdered sugar, plating food is an art form that delights guests. I want to teach you some plating techniques and let your passion for food shine through.

I’m sure you’ve heard it a hundred times: people eat with their eyes! It’s important to understand exactly what that means. I like to talk about first impressions and how we don’t ever have a second chance to make that first impression. It’s true about the entrance to our restaurants and even how we greet our guests with a warm and friendly hello — creating a great first impression will truly set the mood for their experience with you.

The same principle applies to your food — but it’s 10 times more important. What kind of message are you sending? People are passionate about great food and you can truly show them how passionate you are by making them not just happy, but overwhelmed.

Keep in mind that the first step to styling your food is determining which plate is correct for the dish being served. I’ve seen restaurants jam a side garden salad in a tiny bowl that makes it impossible to even mix in dressing. In my restaurant, I’ve taken a small salad and transferred it onto a large dinner plate or bowl — and what a huge difference. It made a much better presentation and gave the guests a better perceived value.

When it comes to garnish, don’t go old school by putting a leaf of kale with an orange slice and a strawberry on the plate. Make it practical! Making your garnish edible is always a winning move. It could be as simple as sprinkling a small amount of freshly grated Parmesan mixed with some chopped parsley around the edge of your plate. I like to use a little bit of field greens underneath some of my appetizers. If you sell calamari, think about tossing some banana pepper rings with them as an edible garnish. I started selling olive and cheese fritters. When I changed the presentation to a martini glass, the sales of that appetizer doubled, because people would watch a server walk by with them. That’s another perfect example of how people eat with their eyes.

Taking some grated Parmesan and sprinkling them on a parchment paper lined baking pan and baking it in the oven will give you some fantastic Parmesan crisp that can be used to garnish your Caesar salad or many of your entreés.

One of the reasons chefs used to use the kale, orange and strawberry that I mentioned was because of the vibrant color contrasts. When you are creating your menu and recipes, build those colors in. My Calypso pizza that won Pizza of the Year at International Pizza Expo in 2000 had just about every color on it that you could think of. When you looked at it, your eyes would become enlarged and your taste buds got ready for something they knew they would love.

I serve Italian nachos in my restaurant. For the pasta chips, I actually fry up won ton wrappers. We use both marinara and alfredo, then top them with black olives, crumbled sausage, banana pepper rings and diced tomatoes. It’s an incredible presentation because of the space the chips take up. They create height to the dish and have a built-in color contrast. That really grabs people’s attention.

Lastly, for all of your dishes, make sure you have put great care into the flavors and textures. The food is what it’s really all about, after all. It can’t be sloppy. You’ve taken the time and energy to find the right ingredients and the right products to put together your interpretation of a perfect tasting dish, so now really analyze the plates you are using, the colorful ingredients used to create the dish and the manner in which you present it.

One final recommendation that I would give you actually serves two purposes — and that is to photograph your food. It will give you a better perspective on how it looks. If it doesn’t say “wow”, then make a change. It will also show your cooks exactly how you want your food leaving the kitchen. Food styling is something that you would do to maximize the presentation value of any dish that you are to prepare and serve.

A dessert tray is a perfect example to a perfect finish. Whether you make your own desserts or buy them, put together a beautiful display of your desserts and showcase them. It’s the only way to sell desserts to someone who has already filled up on your great food.

Once you make the sale, exceed their expectation with a dollop of whipped cream, with a light drizzle of chocolate, caramel, or raspberry sauce and even a sprinkling of cocoa or confectioners sugar (depending on the dessert). Adding about a nickel’s worth of garnish will really leave that lasting impression on your guests, giving them the understanding of your passion and commitment to making their dining experience the best that it can be.

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