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triggers the release of mood-altering hormones.

In other words, it is the sensual properties of


food (how it looks, smells, feels, and tastes) that are more likely to effect immediate changes in
our moods rather than its chemical properties.
Now, there is nothing new or revolutionary about this idea. In 1825, Brillat-Savarin famously
said in his foundational tome, The Physiology of Taste (Transcendental Gastronomy): Tell me
what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of man you are. Charles Simic also
wrote in his essay Food and Happiness (1995):
Sadness and good food are incompatible. The old sages knew that wine lets the
tongue loose, but one can grow melancholy with even the best bottle, especially as
one grows older. The appearance of food, however, brings instant happiness. A
paella, a choucroute garnie, a pot of tripes a la mode de Caen, and so many other
dishes of peasant origin guarantee merriment. The best talk is around that table.
Poetry and wisdom are its company. The true Muses are cooks. Cats and dogs
dont stray far from the busy kitchen. Heaven is a pot of chili simmering on the
stove. If I were to write about the happiest days of my life, many of them would
have to do with food and wine and a table full of friends. (Emphasis mine) (19)
Thus says Adam Gopnik in The Table Comes First: For us, what makes a day into a happy day
is often the presence of a good dinner. (4) It stands to reason then that good food in of itself can
make one happy, regardless of whether or not it triggers the release of happy and calming
hormones in your brain. (Rafael 2)
The Semiotics of Food Presentation
There is an old culinary adage about how we eat first with our eyes: before we can even taste the
food, our opinion of it is already shaped by how it looks. Appearance is one of the main criteria
that diners and professional critics use to judge the quality of food in restaurants.
According to Chef Tony Adams of the eGullet Culinary Institute, the proper cooking of food
has a direct correlation to the its appearance: This is the only element that is controlled by the
chef, directly related to his skill; it is also the most important. If it is not done correctly, there is
no need to present the food nicely; it will certainly be a disappointment upon consumption. (1)
First of all, one must always use fresh ingredients. No matter how perfectly grilled the lamb chop

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is, if it has been in the freezer for over six months, it will not taste good. In the market, one
should have the proverbial first pick of fresh fish and newly harvested fruits and vegetables. A
dedicated home cook will often cultivate his own herb garden in order to have a constant supply
of fresh basil, oregano, thyme, and tarragon.
Secondly, as much as ones budget allows, one should buy premium ingredients: the best cuts of
meat, good quality oil, spices, condiments, and the like. The outcome of ones dish will only be
as good as the quality of its raw materials.
Thirdly, given ones ingredients, one must then decide what proper cooking technique to use. The
protein component in a main course dish occupies the most visually prominent position on the
plate, so it needs to be cooked well if it is to be presented nicely. (Adam 2) When serving salads,
there are two elements that must be met: it has to be beautiful, and it must function as a salad,
dressed and presented accordingly. (Adam 3) Dry-cooking techniques like searing, grilling,
roasting trigger the Mailard reaction in meat: this pertains to what happens to protein and sugars
when they chemically bind together in high heat14. When done well, it results in a perfectly seared
steak that has a beautiful, brown crust, grilled pork chops with caramelized grill marks on it, in a
crosshatch pattern, and roasted whole chicken with crispy, rendered skin. (Adam 2) For
vegetables, on the other hand, the preferred cooking methods of most chefs include blanching and
steaming in order to maintain their bright colors, as well as their firm, crunchy texture. (Adam 3)
While experienced home cooks will be able to cook food properly, they might still find it difficult
to plate their dishes professionally. When we think of the way that food looks in fancy
restaurants, images of sky-high towers of roasted vegetables, carrots cut to look like miniature
dragons, and sauces painted in tadpole shapes and yin-yang symbols on the plate come to mind.
However, there is so much more to food plating than this.
Food presentation refers to the process of offering selected food to diners in a way that is
visually appealing. (Labensky 1288) To do this, one must be mindful of basic design principles,
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14

The Mailard Reaction. chefgui[dot]com: A Food Blog by Chef Gui Alinat.


http://www.chefgui.com/2009/04/06/467/. 6 April 2009.

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the foremost of which is unity. This is true for all forms of visual art, like photography, graphic
design, and painting. When all its interrelated elements are balanced and in harmony, the finished
product will look and feel complete. This is what is known as unity.
With the goal of achieving unity in mind, food presentation has three distinct but interrelated
elements: (1) the support, (2) composition, (3) arrangement.
The plate is referred to as the support, the canvas upon which cooks can design their food. The
general consensus among professionals in the restaurant industry is that pure white china is the
best way to showcase the different colors, shapes, and textures of the food. (Adams) According to
Sarah Labensky and Alan Hause in the fourth edition of On Cooking (A Textbook of Culinary
Fundamentals), the plates need to be large enough to hold the food without overcrowding or
spilling. (1302)
Composition is made up of three components: (1) shapes, (2) colors, and (3) textures. Their main
function in the visual presentation of the dish is to provide contrast and character. (Labensky
1303) There should be a variety of colors, shapes, and textures, but these need to be balanced so
that one element does not overpower the other. Individual shapes and colors must be distinct on
the plate (e.g. the redness of the crabs shine through the golden-yellow butter sauce they were
cooked in; evenly sliced ovals of embutido are in sharp contrast to long, thin spears of asparagus).
When taken collectively, they should make a harmonious whole.
Texture and taste are inextricably linked. For example: take a perfectly seared steak, buttered
French beans, and creamy mashed potatoes, then put them all in a blender until they form a thick
emulsion. Would you want to eat this? (I hope not.) According to Labensky and Hause, texture
refers to the sensation perceived when eating food, as well as the appearance of the surface of
food. (1303) It may be silky, spongy, airy, crispy, crumbly, grainy, flaky, smooth, or creamy. All
ingredients have some kind of texture, but the way a chef layers ingredients with different
textures can set a dish apart15. To wit:
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15

Martinelli, Katherine. The Impact of Texture. August 2009.


http://www.starchefs.com/features/textures/html/index.shtml#textGallery

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Mashed potatoes and potato pure both look smooth and soft. Salmon mousseline
and spinach souffl both have slightly grainy surfaces. Rsti potatoes and meatloaf
both appear coarse. The flavors of each food in these pairs differ, their visual textures
do not. (1303)
According to Alinat, the visual or 'tactile' texture of food is evaluated from initial sight
perception, and then perception on the palate, 'first bite', mastication, swallowing, and
aftertaste16. Like colors and shapes, textures should provide contrast and balance in a dish.
With regard to the arrangement of food on the plate, chefs may have differing opinions on what
kind of plates to use, or what colors, shapes, and textures to utilize in the composition of a dish,
but they are all in agreement over the necessary application of three general guidelines, namely
(1) neatness, (2) focus, and (3) space. At the very least, the arrangement of the food and
ingredients on the support should be neat (e.g. no thumbprints of chocolate on the rim, no oil
from the fried salmon seeping down and pooling at the bottom). And just like any visual artwork,
be it a painting or a photograph, there should be a focal point here too (the point to which the eye
is drawn on the plate) --- this again creates much-needed contrast and balance in the dish.
In food plating, much is made of the principle of dead space17: the areas on the rim and around
the plate to be kept clean. This is why restaurants usually use oversized white presentation plates
--- so that there can be enough space to show off the individually distinct elements of the dish.
Clutter on the plate is an absolute no-no: food should not touch the plate rim nor necessarily be
confined to the very center (Labensky & Hause 1303). It distracts from the main elements,
makes it harder to identify the subject, and easy to miss focus18.

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16

Alinat, Gui. Food Plating / Playing With Texture.chefgui[dot]com: A Food Blog by Chef Gui Alinat.
http://www.chefgui.com/2009/08/13/food-plating-introduction-to-texture/. 13 August 2009.
17
Dead space is a concept that was borrowed from the principles of interior design.
18%Alinat, Gui. Plating food: choose your support.chefgui[dot]com: A Food Blog by Chef Gui Alinat.
http://www.chefgui.com/2009/04/14/plating-food-choose-your-support. 14 April 2009

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