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Garnish

January 20, 2015

Food goes on a plate. We’re not barbarians. Civilized people eat sitting down, at a table, without electronic devices. That includes the television across the room and the smart phone that so desperately wants to be touched.

Personally, I’m a lot more forgiving than most about the use of cameras at the table. But Mrs. Fussy forbids them. As such, I’m lacking photographic documentation of some of our finest meals. But that’s okay. It’s good practice to keep mental images of important life events.

Yes, food can be an important life event. Food has always been more than just food. And our desire to photograph it points to that fact. So often times, those who prepare our food want it to look the part. With the goal of increasing the visual appeal of a dish, chefs will garnish their foods with all sorts of things.

I want them to stop.

Some lessons are learned the hard way. Years ago, I entered a dish into a cooking competition. My original entry wasn’t so pretty, but I was committed to making it look better for the finals. I gave the plating a lot of thought so that my Tonno del Chianti didn’t resemble a big pile of brown.

Which wasn’t easy, I may add. The dish is pretty much pork and beans with some red cabbage to help cut through some of the fat. It’s super delicious, but very rustic. Anyhow, I came up with what I thought was a fairly clever and visually arresting arrangement.

Then I showed it to one of my chef friends. He’s a good chef and he was super critical.

Those lemons and fennel fronds had to go. They were just on the plate for decoration. While that may have been fine 10 or 20 years in the past, the world has moved on. These days, everything on the plate should add to the dish. The lemons could have been zested, with the zest sprinkled on top of the cabbage. The fennel fronds could have been a second “salad” on the plate instead of just a visual cue for an ingredient in the dish.

Chef Dominic has also been talking a lot about garnish on his blog. One thing that struck me back in January was when the chef listed as one of his goals, “use more intelligent garnishes.” You can get a sense of what he means by looking at some of his snipes. Like this one from November, “People still use rosemary sprigs as a garnish?”

I love this guy.

Garnish should not be just for decoration. Those striking colorful elements that crown a dish can provide it with textural contrasts, complementary flavors, and vibrant colors as an integral part of the food itself.

Last night I made a soup in the pressure cooker. I really just shot from the hip and used a wintery mix of winter storage vegetables, white beans, homemade chicken stock and a Parm-Reg rind. There was nothing that could really go wrong with that. You know, besides being beige.

However, I also fried up some matchsticks of pancetta, because that goes amazingly with beans. And then I drizzled some golden olive oil onto the top of each bowl.

All of a sudden, that beige soup is starting to be full of color. But everything on that plate is edible. Everything is working hard to make the food a feast for the senses.

So. Those showers of diced red pepper around the edges of a plate? That’s got to stop. As do the mysterious appearances of greenery, whether that’s in the form of a single decorative leaf, or an entire bunch of herbs. And as long as I’m getting things off my chest, those squiggles of drizzled sauces are totally played out. They don’t make your food look fancy. They make it look dated. You know, kind of like molded mounds of rice.

Now, hopefully, we can all start getting a little bit smarter with our garnishes. And the world will be a better place. Turning off the TVs in restaurants (and their adjacent bars) surely won’t be far behind.

One Comment leave one →
  1. llcwine permalink
    January 20, 2015 10:02 am

    I was watching some repeats from Kitchen Nightmares yesterday…and Gordon Ramsey had the same rant regarding this one “chef” who in addition to adding parsley sprigs on all the plates, then sprinkled the edges with dried parsley…..I got a good laugh when Gordon blew across the plate and the parsley flew everywhere!!

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