The secrets of plating food. An interview with chef Ana Guardati.

Ana Guardati is originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she started her career as a chef. She is currently living on the tropical island of Koh Samui in Thailand where she opened a communal dining experience (TheThaiExperience), together with her business partners Chris and Richard. Her creativity and love for design allow her to see and think about her dishes as a work of art, which has hugely influenced her plating style.  


What are the basic steps you follow when plating a dish?

"When we're plating a dish we always have to have a clear idea about what we want to communicate to our guests and how that will be presented on a plate. It's irrelevant what kind of food it is, how big the portions are if you're cooking at home, for friends, or for customers at a restaurant.
I always try to have a clear vision of how I want the finished dish to look before I start plating. It's important to understand how many components the dish has, what I want to highlight and combine, and finally how and with what I'll decorate it.

With my dishes, I usually try to use at least 3 main components that will give structure to the plating, the rest will be used to balance flavors and to achieve harmony. These 3 components are:

1) the main element (the star of your dish)
2) the side(s)
3) a sauce (or a creamy element).

For example, if we want to cook a homemade pasta with beef ragout for our friends at home, the 3 components in this case are the Pappardelle (homemade pasta) (1), meat ragout (2), and the sauce in which the meat is cooked previously and reduced to a thicker consistency (3). In this case, as part of the final decoration of the dish, we can add grated Parmesan cheese and some fresh herbs (which we used to make the sauce), or other fresh herbs used in the Italian cuisine, such as basil or oregano. If we want to present a more delicate and refined dish to serve in a restaurant we  follow the same concept: for example, a salad made with gravlax salmon (1), avocado, mango and cherry tomatoes (2) and a dill sauce (3)."

Panang Pork dish.

Panang Pork dish.

How does each element contribute to the final dish?

"The main ingredient is the star. This is usually a protein (all kinds of meats or seafood), pasta, cakes or frozen preparations (in case we're making a dessert). It's this element specifically that shows off our creativity, skills, techniques and cooking methods.

Sides add color and texture. We usually choose vegetables or fruits. It is amazing in how many different ways you can cook these same elements, yet achieving a complete variety of textures, flavors, and colors. The sides give us the opportunity to show what kind of flavor combinations can highlight or accompany the main ingredient.

The sauce brings it all together. This goes for savory as well as sweet dishes. This last element is what gives meaning to all of the previous ones. It brings flavor, color, and smoothness, and can be anything from a gravy to a sauce that's been reduced down for hours, to a mayonnaise, a flavored cream or other emulsions. Even syrups, coulis or custards."


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What are the most important factors to keep in mind for plating?    

"Color and texture. A dish doesn't only need to be balanced in flavor, but also in colors and textures, in order to make it look harmonious and tempting to the eye and palate. When I prepare a dish, I always try to use colors that complement each other or simply choose a base color and try to use several of its shades, darker and lighter. I also try to balance the plate with textures: never forget the crunchy element! This can be a crumble, tuille, (poached) veggies or raw fruits. The sauce should give a shine to your dish and can be used to delineate the plate while preventing your dish from looking dry and incomplete.

Tapas trio.

Tapas trio.

Portion size. Another factor to consider is the size of the portion you serve. This depends on the concept behind the plate; if it's a tasting menu, portions can be smaller, if you cook for family and friends, large portions will be more than welcome. For example, if you’re making your grandmother’s "flan" for your family, you’re not going to try to make it super fancy. You’ll plate a big piece of the flan, with some dulce de leche, or a cream and then you decorate it.

However, if you want your dish to look fancier, you would use smaller amounts and repeat them. For example, instead of plating one big piece of the flan, you could serve 3-4 smaller, bite size pieces with a little bit of dulce de leche or cream, creating 3-4 ‘perfect mouthfuls’. By being able to try all the ingredients together on one spoon, you allow the diner to enjoy your dish exactly the way you intended for it to taste. On the other hand, if you serve a big portion, you’re not really giving the diner instructions how to eat it, so they kind of have to figure it out for themselves."


What can ruin the presentation of a dish? What do you have to be careful about?

"The two things that can ruin a dish's presentation (and can't be hidden) is poor cooking as well as a problem in the consistency of the plated elements. Let's take the example of plating a piece of overcooked beef. The dish will not look attractive because the color of the meat is gray and rather hard, and the texture is dry. However, when cooking the same meat properly, the color will be red or pink, and the texture super juicy and tender.

The perfect steak.

The perfect steak.

As regards desserts, something that ruins the presentation of the dish is when the elements are not set enough. For example, an ice cream melting on the plate or a panna cotta that crumbles when you're serving it. There is no way to save it!!

So, rule number 1: if you want to present your dish beautifully, make sure all of its elements are cooked properly!"


What's the hardest thing to plate (what's difficult to make look good?)

"Soup. Of course it depends on what kind of soup you're making, and what ingredients are used in the dish, but usually, if it's Gazpacho, for example, there is not much more to do than serve it in a somewhat deep container because it's only liquid. Of course, you can decorate it with garnishes to add textures and make it look more attractive, but that's about it! If the soup contains solid ingredients, a great way of plating is to present those individual elements on the plate (dry), showing textures and colors, then use a teapot to pour the liquid soup over those ingredients to give the dish a more theatrical effect."

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