Feast For The Eyes: What Goes Into Making A Dish That Looks Like A Masterpiece

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“It’s become second nature for people to take photos of their food before eating it, arranging a scrumptious spread and holding the mobile phone high above the table to get that perfect overhead shot,” shares chef Thomas Allen, chef de cuisine at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Atlantis The Royal, Dubai. With the hype around ‘grammable food, chefs have also upped their plating game. Cooking is a form of art in itself, but treating a plate as the canvas and achieving consistency in presentation takes practice and culinary artistry.

Plating up a dish isn’t just about achieving the right balance of colours and textures. It’s about an overall experience that creates a feast for your senses and a moment to be captured and remembered. For instance, Chef Akash Deshpande of Nava, a restaurant that opened in December 2022 in Mumbai – has created a dessert inspired by Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. It’s almost too pretty to eat. Chef Nikhil Nagpal of Avartana, ITC Grand Chola, Chennai and ITC Maratha, Mumbai, invented an edible ghee candle that, upon lighting, melts on raw mango pudding. Chef Himanshu Saini of Trèsind Mumbai has made eating khichdi a memorable experience by having the server bring its ingredients placed in the shape of India’s map.

Starry Night (Nava)

While these presentations are fascinating, the real question is, how do chefs balance beauty with flavour? We’ve convinced some stellar chefs to spill the beans on how they go about plating some of their signature dishes.

Raw Mango Pudding, Ghee Candle (Avartana)

Elements Assemble

It’s often said that you eat with your eyes first, so creating an aesthetically pleasing dish is crucial to engage diners. Every chef has tricks up their sleeve to make the diner fall in love with the dish at first sight. It starts with precision, as per chef Rahul Rajeev of The Malabar House, Fort Kochi. “I often use tools to create clean lines and visually appealing arrangements,” he shares. For chef Deshpande (of Nava), it’s about allowing enough negative space on the plate so as to allow the dish to shine. He has also trained his eye to mix and match colours on the plate.

Many chefs like to draw the dish on paper as a reference point. “Working with food historians, tapping into the world of the British Library and the team at King Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace, the modern dining experience of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal was born. We sit with gloves on and go through these priceless books, take that inspiration back to our development kitchen in the UK, and reimagine the dishes according to the flavour pairing of the original dish. We develop diagrams of the main dish and its side elements, which enables us to bring out the visual element of the original dish in the most accurate way,” chef Allen explains.

Seafood Platter (The Malabar House)

Chef Gregoire Berger of Ossiano, Atlantis, The Palm, Dubai, says it’s also about storytelling. “I dig up the stories behind dishes through an extensive creative process. ‘A moment of celebration’, a unique dish on our latest ‘Escale’ menu, is reminiscent of good times I spent over a lit candle with friends in France after a laborious day of picking fruits. Such storytelling requires a journey into the realms of imagination, where we conjure up images in our minds. The narrative becomes the driving force behind the visual representation of the dish.

”There’s also portioning. “As we live in India, people are used to bigger plates of food. You need to have a good balance of the amount of food you are serving that also looks full,” chef Deshpande shares.

Tableware Trends

Table decor, crockery, and cutlery play an equally important role in bringing out the symphony of flavours. Some restaurants take that additional step of
working with specialised craftspeople to create bespoke pieces that enhance the dining experience. At Avartana, stone-carved serveware is inspired by the artists from Mahabalipuram, whereas upcycled glass and clay plates are customised by potters in Pondicherry.


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“The carefully hand-picked crockery is not a mere vessel for the food but an integral aspect of our storytelling approach. Once, we served a dish called ‘On the path to nostalgia’, which featured a backwards moving clock as part of the ensemble. Even though the clock was a tiny piece, it served as a priceless element that transported guests back in time during their dining experience. We have also used cutlery to go with various temperature levels of dishes as well. For example, pairing a very cold dish with a frozen spoon adds a layer of sensory intrigue,” shares chef Berger.

meat fruit with toast (Dinner by Heston Blumenthal)

Sustainable Style

The chefs are also mindful of reducing wastage through the entire process of sourcing ingredients to plating. “Portion control is key. We focus on using every part of an ingredient creatively and repurposing kitchen scraps for stocks or garnishes,” chef Rajeev says. “Our spiced aubergine is one such dish where the pulp of aubergine is smoked and flavoured with tamarind, jaggery and spices while the skin gets transformed into a thin sheet, which gets encased around the dish, adding to the presentation,” chef Nagpal adds.

Pre-weighing and standardisation ensure zero wastage and consistent portion size. “We decided to reduce the portion of a particular salad recently after noticing the amount of leftovers brought back to the kitchen,” chef Allen says. Today, edible serveware has also found a spot in fine dining as a nod to sustainability.

3 Pork Cracker, Banana and chilli (Dinner by Avartana)

Flavour First

3 Pork Tapioca, Radish Jam

Social media has become a powerful tool, enabling culinary artists to showcase their creativity in different forms. In the age of Instagram, where many feel the need to post a picture of their fine dining experience, chefs are obligated to give their best. But there are times when the looks are prioritised over taste, and that’s where restaurants lose out. “While a beautifully curated Instagram feed or a stunning dining experience can grab one’s attention and generate preliminary interest, it’s crucial to ensure that the taste and quality of food also deliver. A visually appealing presentation should complement the overall dining experience rather than overshadow the importance of flavours,” chef Allen aptly points out. After all, true art lies in having a dish that not only satisfies the eyes but also the palate.

Read the full story on ELLE India’s new issue, or download your digital copy via Magzter.

- Lifestyle Editor


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