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Food styling: A journey to visual appeal

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As much as food holds value for its nutritional aspects, the visual appeal of a dish enhanced by food presentation is equally crucial as it is helps the diner decide to consume the food or not. Speaking on the importance of food styling, Chef Michael Swamy tells us how food styling differentiates an artist from a creator

Is well-styled food relegated only to advertisements on a printed page or is it just to be instagramable? The Japanese have perfected the art of plating food, with techniques that chefs take years to master. Many chefs have done much by way of making food more accessible through visual means. Famous artists to chefs like Charlie Trotter, have shown what eating with one’s eyes, is all about. It’s nothing more than uplifting one’s senses by way of visual appeal. As a chef and stylist, one has come to realise it’s something that goes beyond the plate. It’s about creating a visual experience. Breaking the barriers of plating Indian food is a talent owned by too few chefs. It is being done however in Indian restaurants in Europe where food is being presented in a totally different style. Every second restaurant continues to have the same style of plating their dishes.

Where has creativity and ingenuity gone?
A great food presentation speaks volumes; it shows what a chef can do. It raises a chef from a creator to an artist. This is something we realised when we were invited by Chef Thiru to teach at the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration Manipal, the only college in the country concentrating on giving its students more than just a culinary education, taking the students beyond the realm of a plate and discussing with them the nuances of crockery and cutlery and how as chefs they have to learn about colours and textures and lines on a plate. Showing them the works of great artists and how they saw the play of light and shadows and how they painted food across huge canvasses. Another example of creating plating experiences giving us a challenge was when we were asked to improve the dining experience of food at Pugdundee Resorts in Madhya Pradesh and Te Aroha in the mountains. We used the elements around us to create the mood and the story. The jungle menu and the mountain menu arose and created a visual story. How does one take tribal cuisine and make it presentable to an international audience? Or for that matter how to train staff to rethink food and look at it from a new dimension? At times a stylist’s role is to create the audible experience, wherein the food stories mesmerise the audience and they visualise an image even before the plate is put in front of them. International travellers want to know more about food, cuisines, and cultures and creating that experience is the job of the chef and the management. At times we have had to explain to staff what their own cuisine is all about so that they are able to give a visual picture to a guest. Getting naturalists to discuss local ingredients with guests during the game drives, showing them unique trees and ingredients, walking through the organic farm, showcasing the farm to fork concept all this is part of creating the culinary experience.

A visual treat
One of the fundamentals of teaching styling is that the food must not only taste good but also look good. The evolution of Gardens Land and Sea created another dimension for a restaurant menu we had created. Currently working on Bikers Café, the menu will take the long roads and coastal highways and the famous foods along the way. Capturing those stories and creating a culinary magic around the dishes and the plating and transporting the diner within a visual map is going to be a challenge.
Looking back, what is it that I want to see on a plate? Well for one, the cutlery if it’s for fine dining, had better be good. Fine cutlery shows that you care how your food is eaten. As dinner plates go, we have moved beyond the old fashioned. The choice of china available now in India is stupendous. From different shapes to different sizes, an understanding of knowing how to serve what and in which dish is desirable. In crockery today, it seems bigger is the better. There are plenty of fine designs to be found in all shapes and materials. Bone china and porcelain continue to be the best. The colour white or earth hues complement good food. A host of shapes takes one’s fancy and with mix and match options, one can plate dishes as to one’s convenience. On larger plates it’s easier to space food, keeping in mind four factors – balance, focus, flow and unity. Placing smaller portions on large plates makes food look very elegant.As a chef knowing that sauces and gravies are best served in coupe plates or pasta plates, certain Indian dishes are best served within a coupe plate versus serving the food in a flat plate. When designing food well, what’s in season works best. The freshest fruits and vegetables are nutritious and enhance the look on a plate. Very often it’s the protein that is the focal point of a plate with everything else going around it. There are many styles to plating food. From stacking ingredients and flavours one on top of the other to the landscape style of plating where food is artistically placed flat upon a plate. From giving elements of height and liquid on a plate to a swirl of sauce, lines on a plate, or designer mounds of food all presented, well styled are a feast for the eyes. Current day chef stylists have to learn with actual ingredients and play around with food. Everything on the plate has to be edible. A thorough understanding of culinary techniques is essential. Having styled for books and food shows and teaching students the art and craft of plating, I have come to realise that one has to spread one’s knowledge and create a brand of chefs who are going to be strong and knowledgeable and know more about art and design and about colours, light, shadow and above all learn a sense of having an “eye for detail”.

(The author is a food stylist, food media specialist
and culinary trainer)


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