Presenting a plate of food beautifully shows the attention paid into putting together of details and elements, that allow the eyes to linger for one extra moment and make it the holistic experience that it’s meant to be.
Eating has always been a multi-sensory experience that demands the person to be present and experience each sensation and texture with all their senses. While taste does play a crucial role in the way we perceive what we tend to like or dislike, what happens foremost is a visual experience of what we’re about to consume. The significance of a special occasion is marked by food, it enables us to create a social bond with people across different cultures and ways of life like no other medium does. When the first step to eating a meal involves looking at every component on your plate before you taste them, presenting food in a certain way becomes a key factor in determining how connected we are to a particular plate.
Designing a plate of food to look a certain way involves meticulous planning to understand what flavours would work well together, the textures that complement each other as well as the colours that attract us towards something. We seldom find ourselves at a restaurant feeling a sense of desire to try something that is meant for another table, only because its grandiose was impressive or because it looked like something you would want to eat. Living in the internet age makes us stress a lot about the aesthetic appeal of our food more than ever before. At a time when we’re driven by what everybody says they’re eating, on social media, presentation of a dish is paid attention to in the same way that you would, if you ended up decorating your home. We spoke to three acclaimed people in the food space who were instrumental in creating some of the most attractive looking plates at their restaurants, to take us behind the scenes and shed light upon the work that went behind taking an idea and creating it into a plate that not only looks desirable but tastes equally delicious.
Owner: Fig & Maple, Goa
Khandvi Ravioli at Fig & Maple, Goa
The idea behind Fig & Maple Goa was to introduce regional Indian flavours to our audience in a contemporary, cool yet sustainable way. It was also an opportunity for our team to understand age old Indian cooking techniques and amalgamate them with modern cooking methods. The Khandvi Ravioli was initially a fettuccine, which evolved into the ravioli, simply for ease of prep and real time service. It was also a really great way for us to use up all our prawn shells since the bisque served with the khandvi ravioli is a zero waste sauce. It took us 4-5 trials to get this dish right, I remember the entire pre-opening team waited eagerly for this particular trial however since the khandvi ribbons were super slippery and soft they would keep getting damaged as soon as we would add the bisque. We had to rework the recipe a fair few times in order to still keep the slippery texture but also ensure that it wouldn’t disintegrate in the sauce.
The Khandvi Ravioli would be an exemplary example of the restaurant’s philosophy – which is to make Indian food approachable and fun. The final plate is a black bowl of ravioli filled with curry leaf prawns, a silky-smooth bisque with a red chilli mustard infused oil and a jumbo prawn to devour. We’ve played with the contrast between black and yellow and added splashes of red to keep the dish warm, fun and non-serious. The primary flavours remain the same as a khandvi and are only complemented by the bisque. After several tries, when we finally attained the shape, structure and taste – and figured out the best way to prep for it, so it’s not too time consuming in a busy service – it was criminal to keep it away from guests!
Co-Owner: The Farm, Chennai
Beets & Brassica Plate at The Farm, Chennai
We were told by a lot of people that our menu is very meat-oriented; and it is true to some extent because we are meat eaters. Of course, we have vegetarian options but nothing was as interesting as the meat dishes we had on offer. So we wanted to create a plant-based dish that would interest people and push the envelope when it came to people’s understanding of vegetarian food. My brief to myself was that this plate had to be as exciting to anybody in general, as they would be, about a plate with meat on it. We decided to explore the different families of vegetables which was like a botany lesson for us all over again because we don’t think of vegetables like that; for example not many people know that potatoes, green chillies and tomatoes belong to the same plant family.
With the Beets & Brassica plate, we figured that it might get too boring and we had to mix things up a little bit. We have access to beetroot and radish, we have cauliflower, bok choy and broccoli, which on their own can be interesting but might not necessarily work well together; so we zeroed in on a multi-layered dish that was not going to be a dip or starter, and was one we wanted to make. People don’t necessarily want to go to a restaurant and eat these vegetables so we were going to make it dramatic. So we charred the bok choy in the oven using mustard oil (mustard belongs to the brassica family), tossed the cauliflower and radish in the same oil and roasted them on an open flame. We picked spinach fresh from our garden and dipped the leaves in a thin rice batter to give it a crisp, chip-like texture.
So we got the white and green from the bok choy, a different kind of green from the spinach and the whites of the cauliflower and radish. But then we needed some sort of a sauce to go with it and that’s where the beetroot came in; we combined beetroot juice with a nice radish cream to make the sauce and simply smacked the spoon on the plate to form these crazy patterns, as a feature on the large white plate. What putting the sauce at the bottom does is that it lets the vegetables retain their texture without making them soggy, and their colour. To bring one more texture on to the plate, we pop amaranth seeds like you would popcorn, for tiny bits of crunch. One more element, that has nothing to do with the beets or brassica was the beetroot juice-stained boiled egg, which people can exclude if they’re vegetarian.
Not being confined to a particular cuisine or way of cooking is what our story has been about. What I say to people is that we’re ingredient-driven and not cuisine-driven. We dream up dishes based on the seasonality of food, who we’re working with at that point in time and what’s available to us. The underlying factor to our dishes is that we don’t follow the norm, we take recipes and dishes and make them our own. What’s interesting to us as individuals who run this place is to have layers and building blocks in our food. Our menu is a reflection of our relationship with food as opposed to what our customers want. We figured over the years that if a dish worked for us, chances are it would work for other people too.
Chef: Masque, Mumbai
Fresh Green Pea Patra With Saffron Sauce at Masque, Mumbai
The idea behind the Fresh Green Pea Patra dish was to highlight our version of patra – a traditional snack that finds its roots across many cultures in India. Green peas were in season so instead of using gram flour to make a filling, we did one with mashed peas. Besides, peas, mushroom and saffron are classic flavours that go well together; the morel mushrooms contribute umami flavours and the parsley chutney brings about an added freshness. While we research to design menus for the restaurant, flavour and taste is top priority followed by how it looks on the plate; because everyone eats with their cameras first, these days. We think about where it makes sense to feature on the menu, what kind of plate should be used and other finer details once we’ve zeroed in on how we want the food to taste. We were conscious to understand that half the vegetarians in Bombay don’t eat mushrooms, so finding an alternative element was possibly the only challenge while designing the plate. The plate is gluten-free but not lactose-free for now, but it can be tweaked to suit dietary restrictions.
Masque is a modern-Indian restaurant that is centred around Indian culture and food. For a dish like this which was inspired by a traditional snack, we wanted to highlight local produce, culinary traditions and overall flavours rooted in what we’re familiar with. It’s all about celebrating India in different ways; on a larger scale, it’s part of a menu that projects this idea. To be honest, you never really arrive at a consensus (on how something tastes) because everyone has their own feedback. Until a dish is on the menu and served to guests, we’re not sure about the tweaks that must be made. Once people come to the restaurant and enjoy a meal is when we get a chance to understand what people really like or dislike; because we’ve been working on it for so long, we tend to get attached to the dish. Moreover, we taste each element separately so putting everything together is when we really know if something works or not.