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Chef Richard Ekkebus’ uni, cauliflower, lobster and caviar dish at his Michelin-star restaurant, Amber. In the instagram era, chefs are focusing on the appearance of their dishes as much as the taste. Photo: Amber

In the Instagram age, when food presentation is as important as taste, chefs elevate meals to an art form

  • From gold leaf sprinkles to tailor-made plates, chefs in the social media age are increasingly focused on the look of their food, keen to make it photo-ready
  • They are catering to the pretty-food obsession with dishes that tell stories and give ‘meaning to life’. But no amount of beauty can save a poorly cooked meal

When it comes to eating, taste is only part of the equation.

In this day and age, when “the camera eats first” is the new normal, restaurants also have to follow suit, ensuring that everything from the decor to the cutlery and, most importantly, the dishes, are photo-ready before being presented to the customer.

Creating a delicious and beautifully plated dish is no small feat. In fine dining in particular, each dish involves hours of labour, planning and careful execution before finally being plated.

Take Richard Ekkebus’ signature uni starter at his two-Michelin-star Hong Kong restaurant, Amber, for example: a layer of sea urchin is placed in the bottom of a custom-made ceramic dish, followed by a spoonful of caviar, and topped with a gold flake to finish. The ceramic dish is then placed on top of an additional plate to serve – and that’s the simplified version.
Amber’s sea urchin and caviar dish at the Taste of Hong Kong festival, in 2016.

This is a feast made for your eyes, your camera and then your palate.

“Food has incredible potential to awaken sensory experiences, to educate and to narrate a story. Food visuals have become far more than the plate itself,” says Isil Okcu, a senior sous chef at private members’ club Soho House Hong Kong.
Isil Okcu, senior sous chef at Soho House in Hong Kong. Photo: Isil Okcu

Known for her food and prop styling, Okcu creates eye-catching spreads for a variety of events, from interactive dinners and edible installations to everyday meals.

“I am trying to elevate the meaning of food from being a basic necessity to an art form and practice,” she says.

With fine dining, supper clubs and other curated dining experiences on the rise, it would appear that an increasing number of people are seeing the value of beautiful meals.

Colourful dishes created by Isil Okcu. Photo: Isil Okcu

Maria Nguyen, the founder of media platform The Art of Plating, has witnessed a growing interest in food plating over the past decade.

Based between Los Angeles and New York, Nguyen was running a creative brand agency when she fell in love with cooking and food plating, leading her to establish The Art of Plating nearly 10 years ago.

“What stood out to me was how beautiful the dishes in those cookbooks were and I found myself drawn to learn more about the inspiration, techniques and processes behind them,” she says.

Maria Nguyen, founder of The Art of Plating. Photo: Nader Khouri

“After searching everywhere and realising there was no website, magazine or book covering the topic of plating, I decided to start The Art of Plating to fill that gap.”

Nguyen began her media platform on Instagram but it quickly grew into something much bigger. Over time, she launched the brand’s website, an online magazine with chef interviews and features, and has produced podcasts and YouTube videos as well as hosting events.

Now The Art of Plating has more than a million followers across its channels.

Roe, cucumber, dill, and horseradish, from The Art of Plating. Photo: Instagram/@theartofplating

“Back in the 2010s, it was the first big culinary community on Instagram where you could see what a talented chef in Japan or Spain was doing instantaneously and showcasing food and chefs through a different lens,” Nguyen says.

“It became a well of inspiration with a community of chefs and food lovers around the world who appreciated beautiful food, and plating thereafter became a phenomenon.”

Today, Nguyen works on The Art of Plating full time, an interest that began as mere curiosity having blossomed into a career and a full-blown appreciation for food as an art form.

Duck jelly, white onion, smoked sturgeon, and caviar, from The Art of Plating. Photo: Instagram/@theartofplating

“On the surface, it’s about a beautifully plated dish, but if you dig deeper there are so many other people involved in the final outcome of that dish outside the chef – the farmer or producer who grew the ingredients, the ceramicist who created the plate, or the photo­grapher who took the photo we admire,” she says.

“There really are so many stories to tell and food in general can be a great starting point to have interesting conversations.”

As with other artistic endeavours, there is a sense of freedom, creativity and self-expression when it comes to food styling.

Leonard Cheung, co-owner and executive chef of Cultivate. Photo: Cultivate
However, for those who want to incorporate it in their meals, there are a few basic principles to begin with, says Leonard Cheung, co-owner and executive chef of Cultivate, a casual fine-dining restaurant in Hong Kong known for its intricate plating and tongue-in-cheek dishes.

The fundamentals of plating include not plating food on the rim of the plate or bowl, wiping the plate clean of smudges or splashes and having a contrast of height in the dish.

“You develop your style depending on how well you understand the products and how you match the products together,” says Okcu.

Petits fours are tiny but require huge skill to make – and don’t come in 4s

She adds that food styling is an artistic muscle that can be developed over time, especially if you begin to view it as an art form.

“The more time you spend in art galleries and with books and artists, the more your vision will develop. You can’t learn [food styling] but you can develop your talent,” she says.

Aside from being visually appealing, food styling is also a technical tool that chefs can use to guide the dining experience, says Nguyen.

“For example, do you want your guests to pick up the food with their fingers or use their silverware? Perhaps you want to surprise them with something sweet, hidden under another layer that they weren’t expecting.”

Okcu says food styling is an artistic muscle that can be developed over time. Photo: Isil Okcu

Done correctly, food presentation can elevate a meal but, at the end of the day, good cooking is what matters most. Styling is simply the cherry on top.

“The best hot dishes are the ones with as few components as possible. All the colourful microgreens, flowers, herb oils, purées and tuiles cannot save a poorly cooked piece of meat that is served at an undesirable temperature,” says Cheung.

Sometimes, it’s the dishes that seem unassuming that blow you away.

Strawberry gazpacho with kombu and cured hamachi, by Leonard Cheung. Photo: Cultivate

“Some of the best fine-dining dishes I’ve had were dishes that appeared as effortless as what people make at home, yet they have been carefully prepared with so much labour and thought that I was completely deceived,” says Cheung.

“Knowledgeable diners and chefs tend to admire creations that do not focus on the presentation or styling of the dish.”

However, while not all dishes need to be dressed to the nines to reveal their beauty, Nguyen believes that some degree of styling is always welcome, whether it is to enhance one’s dining experience or simply to add beauty in our everyday lives.

Chocolate tart and wild herbs from The Art of Plating. Photo: Instagram/@theartofplating

“Creating beauty in our daily lives is something easily and often overlooked in our fast-paced world, but it can make a huge difference in one’s day. When you see something beautiful that moves you, it can bring an overwhelming sense of gratitude and meaning to life,” Nguyen says.

And that’s a message to chefs and home chefs reading this now. Next time you’re cooking an intricate meal for seven, or just a late-night bowl of ramen for yourself, chop up some spring onion, whip out the sesame seeds and get creative.

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