After spending 45 minutes cooking dinner, it’s understandable that sometimes you just want to scoop up what just came out of the pan or oven, throw it on a plate and dig in with family, friends (or solo!). And sure, that’s NBD on weeknights when you’re more interested in filling stomachs, finishing homework and dealing with bedtime routines.
But other times — say, when you’ve spent a while preparing a nice dinner with your S.O. on date night in or when you’re having a couple of friends over for homemade brunch or appetizers — it’s nice to honor the time you spent on the meal by plating it prettily. It’s not just about looks (the more practical among us would argue that there’s no point dressing up our dishes at home because there’s no one watching and it’s about to disappear anyway). It’s about taking a moment to appreciate the ingredients and the work that went into making them delicious — and it doesn’t hurt that it makes it even more appetizing.
Since most of us probably don’t have the time to or interest in spending more than two minutes prettying up any given meal, regardless of the scenario, I asked pro chefs for their easiest, quickest, nonchef-friendly food presentation tips. Steal them, below.
Be organized in the kitchen
Do all the prep work — even grating cheese or chopping herbs for garnishes — in advance. That way, everything will be ready and you won’t be scrambling to figure out the final steps to make your food look good. “If all your ingredients are set up correctly, you can focus more on the plating itself,” says Chef Ricardo “Ricky” Arias of New York City restaurant Dinnertable.
Keep it simple
Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be. Yes, the fancy food bloggers you follow on Instagram might have elaborate plating tricks that you’re tempted to try, but simple sophistication can be just as lovely. “Less is more,” says Arias. “Nobody needs tweezers and gadgets to make beautifully presented food. Practice simple platings with few components. Get comfortable with the basics: knife work, using your plating spoon, executing your food correctly, etc. Then move onto more complicated dishes. Start slow!”
Practice makes pretty
Then again, when you do feel ready to try more advanced stuff like creating artistic designs and patterns with spices, herbs, and sauces, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to get it right the first time. “Practice, practice, practice! The more you practice presentation, the more natural it becomes,” says Arias.
Pick fun dishes
While we’re fans of classic white bowls and plates (especially the super-affordable ones from Ikea, which cause zero stress when there are chips or breaks!) consider adding a few pieces with personality to your collection. “My biggest tip for presentation is to think about how best to showcase your dish,” says Executive Chef Travis Taylor of Oregon’s Sunriver Resort. “Choose an interesting plate or serving vessel.” And they don’t have to be expensive! Check out a few affordable picks here.
Don’t take food too seriously — instead, think of the dish or bowl as a canvas where you can be as creative as you want. “Use interesting sauces or seasonal ingredients that bring out different aspects of the food or add beauty to the final presentation,” says Taylor. “This is your chance to tap into your inner artist — don’t be afraid to experiment, and above all, have fun!”
Go for authentic garnishes
Chef Cal Stamenov of Lucia Restaurant & Bar in Bernardus Lodge & Spa in Carmel Valley, California, says where you shop for ingredients can impact how your food presents when it’s cooked. “Go to a nursery for herbs rather than Whole Foods,” says Stamenov. Not only will herbs at a nursery or local farmers market be priced cheaper, they’ll also have more flaws and character — which can give your dish rustic authenticity.
Play with scent
Though it may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about food presentation, scent is just as important to making a beautiful impression as aesthetics are. Stamenov has a few unique tricks to make your dishes extra-fragrant. “Before serving meat, add some dried rosemary or thyme sprigs, and then torch them like a candle for a great herb scent as you bring them to the table. You can put the sprigs in the oven for a short while to dry them out beforehand,” says Stamenov. “While slow-grilling meat, add citrus leaves, rosemary sprigs, wild fennel or even walnuts and almonds, as they give off a great sweet, nutty smoke.”
Taking a moment to wipe down the edge of a plate or bowl to get rid of drips can make a big difference. “When you think of kitchen tools, most people think of knives, spoons, or pots and pans, but one of the greatest tools in the Ai Fiori kitchen are plate wipes,” says Chef Scot Schneider of Ai Fiori in New York City. “We use a white textureless towel soaked in water and white vinegar. The vinegar helps to cut down any water streaks left on the plate. When a guest in our restaurant receives a dish, the food should be what the eyes see — not a finger print or sauce spot on the edge of your plate.”