For the visually inclined, a meal can be as exciting to look at as it is to eat. Plating–the process of designing the presentation of a dish–may be inexplicable to the uninitiated, but there’s actually a strong functional element to it, since the design of a plate will dictate the sequence of tastes and textures a diner will experience. A new series on Gilt Taste called The Art of Plating asks great chefs to explain their plating process–or, “why they put this sauce here, for example, or why they placed the herbs just so.”
Revered pastry chef Michael Laiskonis is first up in the series, which will include Wylie Dufresne, Alex Stupak, and Anita Lo later this summer. The long-time pastry chef at La Le Bernardin, who recently moved on to become Creative Director of the Culinary Institute, walks us through four desserts, including his signature dish “the Egg.” By way of introduction, Laiskonis quotes his idol, Parisian pastry chef Phillipe Conticini: “flavors are like neighbors in a small community. They bump into one another, they interact and they are concentrated.”
Plate One: Greek yogurt panna cotta, basil cake, basil seeds, candied celery, strawberries + strawberry film.
While making this “early summer” dish, Laiskonis reveals his aesthetic habits. He tried to always plate things in odd numbers, explaining that asymmetry suits his style. “One is to make things look ‘natural,’ like here, making the leaves look like they fell out of the sky,” he says.”The dish has to hit you in a visceral way first, where someone enjoys it without knowing what they’re looking at.” He also reveals an unexpected creative influence from his adolescence: being on yearbook staff in 8th grade.
Laiskonis also compares contemporary plating to that of the ’80s and ’90s. “In the ’90s, dessert was: something in the center of the plate, a cold component, a sauce, and a crisp tuile,” he says. “But I don’t obsess over what every dish ‘has’ to have anymore.”
Plate Two: Pistachio financier, rose buttercream, mango spheres, lemon curd, raspberries.
Laiskonis created this dish specifically for the Gilt Taste piece. He calls it a “Japanese rock garden,” by way of India and France, comparing the process of plating the dish to creating a Zen garden. Asymmetry and motion guide his decisions as he designs the dish on the spot.
Another technique the chef loves? Placing certain elements on the edge of the plate. “I like the idea of violating the frame,” he explains. Also interesting: not a fan of the “swipe on a plate” technique, though he still uses it sometimes: “there’s a part of me that says, ‘Ugh, not again.'”
Plate Three: Black sesame “gianduja” mousse, cherries, black sesame cake, mandarin sorbet, crêpe dentelle.
This pretty little plate is the chef’s tribute to Takashi Yagihashi, for whom he worked in 1999. Between talking about the domed composition and crackling texture of the crisps, he discusses what he calls “the limitations” of the plate itself: flat, wide plates don’t let flavors mingle. He explains that Phillipe Conticini started plating his desserts in glasses out of frustration. Laiskonis plates his dishes “tightly” to get the same effect. “Hopefully, a diner would break through with their spoon and just start eating, combining everything but having each bite be just a bit different. It’s a glassless ode to Conticini.”
Plate Four: “The Egg” Milk chocolate custard, caramel foam, caramel sauce, maple syrup, sea salt.
This is the dish that made Laiskonis famous. The chef calls it “all-American,” and adds that since you can only eat it one way, it’s unpretentious and restrained–“I’m an extremely visual person, but I want that as my anchor.”
The egg grounds Laiskonis in reality, giving him natural boundaries (interestingly, the cocoa nibs are what keep the shell from falling over). What’s more, the eggshell supplies built-in portion control. “You leave it wishing there was just a little more … though I have been asked to make it in an ostrich egg.”
Head over to Gilt Taste to read the much longer, more detailed posts.