The Magic of Plating
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons
Just like artists, Austin chefs from Henbit and Le Politique know what it takes to create feeling. The flavors, textures, and colors of food are all taken into consideration and sometimes even the simplest plating designs can have a big impact.
There’s nothing quite as lovely as a lavish plate of food. As consumers of both products and (let’s be honest) Netflix binges, it’s easy to become obsessed with beautiful plates of delicious concoctions. From “Chef’s Table” to “Mind of a Chef” to “The Great British Baking Show,” people can’t seem to get enough of food turned art. So, what’s turning everyone’s attention toward these unbelievable bites? Henbit partners Kevin Fink and Page Pressley and Le Politique executive pastry chef Melissa Carroll help unveil the mysteries of plating and discuss why it’s so important.
The truth is that there’s an emotional connection to food, which can be difficult to recognize. Certain flavors elicit memories or create unanticipated reactions. These responses are not just by chance—food can be designed and meticulously crafted to create these emotions. Just like artists, these respected Austin chefs know what it takes to create feeling. The flavors, textures, and colors of food are all taken into consideration.
“Food is most successful when it’s based in familiarity of expectations but also has something beneath it or sometimes very painstakingly in front of it that is totally different than what you would expect,” Fink says.
In fact, it’s largely about balance. Fink, Pressley, and Carroll all mention the importance of balance in the plating of dishes, as well as in their daily lives. From squeezing in a quick run in the morning to planning how a dessert will present to customers, in this industry, it’s important to know when to push the limits and when to accept that less is more.
“It’s good to have an eye for detail and a good eye for color. You have to know what colors work really well together, and then it’s also a balancing game of textures, acidity, salt, sweetness, and a lot of other things that can come into play,” Carroll says.
On top of that, factors such as the shape of a plate and even the height of the food are also considered to ensure a positive reaction before a customer even picks up their fork. “I wanted to create a dessert that is light and refreshing rather than something that’s going to bog them [customers] down,” says Carroll, referring to Le Politique’s Coconut Blancmange dessert. “It has a lot of exotic flavors, so maybe it could transport them to that trip to Maui that they went on last summer.”
Whether you’re being transported to the Hawaiian Islands or trying to savor the last bite of a dish, sometimes even the simplest plating designs can have a big impact. Le Politique’s Red Fruits and Tarragon Sorbet, for example, has only four ingredients—raspberries, cherries, strawberries, and tarragon all come together in a striking magenta scoop that is presented in a polished silver dish, making it almost impossible for customers to resist.
When you’re committed to using farm-to-table ingredients, like Henbit, this idea of less is more begins to flourish.
“The food that we cook has to be purposeful,” says Fink. “It has to be felt. We’re not just trying to cook delicious food or food that looks great. We’re trying to cook food that has meaning behind it.”
Fink described how important it was to think about how a flavor gives back to our region. Both Pressley and Fink accomplish this through the Henbit menu. “That perfect bite of a sandwich evokes so much emotion,” Pressley says about Henbit’s Reuben Sandwich. “It’s like you take one bite and you close your eyes and there’s nothing else you need because everything that you needed is there. And not all foods make perfect conduits for that, but the sandwich is that for me.”
As for inspiration, the chefs all have different muses, including books, nature, and fellow chefs. But while all of them pull inspiration from different sources, each one mentioned drawing motivation from one common theme: locally-sourced ingredients. Maybe that’s why Austin has made a name for itself as a foodie destination. Residents (and visitors) are presented food that is not only visually stunning, but also sustainable. Locals will recognize the colors, smells and textures of the city.
Fink mentioned that food is most successful when it is rooted in familiarity, and there’s nothing more familiar than a plated slice of home.