Thanks to Lauren’s birthday falling in early August when the farmer’s markets are bursting with amazing fresh produce, it’s become a bit of an annual tradition for me to tackle a complicated birthday meal and go to town on presentation.
Over the years we’ve eaten at our fair share of fancy restaurants (Michelin-starred or otherwise), so I’ve seen first hand what the highest end of the culinary arts can do. Since I haven’t spent a day of my life working in a kitchen I have no delusions that I’m capable of similar, but I still find it a fun challenge to occasionally produce a meal that aims for those heights.
There’s a compelling mix of left and right brained thinking required to design, schedule, cook, and plate a meal of a sufficiently high caliber — it’s a similar mix to what attracted me to the web many years ago and, unlike the web, the results are instantaneously satisfying if hyper-limited in their reach.
I’ve consumed a ton of food-related media over the years in attempts to elevate my kitchen skills, but I can’t say I’ve ever come across a guide to demystifying the process of putting together dishes like a high end restaurant. Sure, you’ll find no end of individual recipes and plating guides and general cooking techniques. But all of those put together as a piece that walks through the inspiration and intent of a meal from start to finish isn’t something I can remember seeing.
Now I’m not the person to write that. I have no formal training or any credentials, which means this is really just a write up on what I did as an amateur chef from the initial ideas to the challenges I faced and how I improvised to overcome them. But maybe that’s enough? Maybe there are some new ideas in here for people curious about doing similar.
(As an aside, this recent article on staging at a French Michelin-starred restaurant is a peek at the other extreme of the culinary world, and why I have perspective on where my skills are at. If I had a full kitchen crew and experience plating the same dish dozens of times a night, maybe I’d feel differently.)
This salad was one of four plates for this year’s dinner. I try to approach these meals with a theme in mind. One year it was using techniques and ingredients from Middle Eastern and Chinese traditions and playing them off each other. Another year I borrowed (okay, stole) the concept from a favourite local restaurant that pairs Japanese and Italian tradition in surprisingly and inventive ways.
My guiding theme this year was more abstract: I wanted to pull from French and/or Cajun traditions, but with most of my focus going into the plating. Admittedly this is a fantastic way to plate something pretty that tastes like hot garbage, but I figured with some thoughtfulness toward ingredents and techniques and plenty of flavour checks along the way I could still end up with a pretty good result.
For some inspiration I started an image search to dig up great plating examples. I chose this one as my starting point for a couple of reasons — the vibrant colour looked like an element I could carry across other dishes to unify them, and I needed some lighter fare to contrast some of the heavier dishes that would come later.
Since I wasn’t able to find anything about the restaurant that plated that image, my starting points for composition and ingredients were limited to the image itself and my imagination. A few things are fairly evident from looking at it:
- The purple purée is almost certainly beet
- Identifiable vegetables include candy cane beet, radish, cilantro, and a dark purple leafy vegetable of some kind, possibly radicchio
- There’s a browned/crisped item underneath as a base, likely some kind of waffle
I see hints of other items, but that’s all I could be confident about. I’m sure the ingredient list was carefully considered to provide interesting textural and flavour contrast, but to my eyes the layering in this salad feels like the important part.
It also reminded me of a dish we experienced together at Manresa, an ever-changing mix of the freshest garden ingredients they have on the day. If memory serves, that one can hit upwards of 80 component parts at times which made me confident that my approach of layering up great produce that looks and tastes good should work, especially with enough care given to salt, fat, and acid along the way.
So with that inspiration in mind, I had a rough idea for how I wanted to approach this dish:
- Candy cane beets look great, so adding an earthy edge to fresh summer produce with those plus a beet purée was a no brainer.
- My darker-coloured base would be wild rice instead of greens for some substance.
- My crispy element would be crispy slices of new carrots
But I realized everything else would be highly dependent on what I could find fresh at the farmer’s market, so I planned for a fair amount of improvisation during day-of cooking and plating to guide the rest of this dish.
While shopping, I chose a variety of interesting-looking produce: heirloom cherry tomatoes, English peas, a variety of microgreens, edible flowers, fruit, etc. At this point I didn’t know what all I’d use so I was thinking of it more as giving myself enough options to make decisions on the fly — similar to how it’s better to have all the paint colours in advance than it is to need a supply run as the canvas is drying.
This approach sounds like it could lead to a lot of waste, but the following week was spent enjoying other (much quicker) dishes that used up the leftover ingredients.
Preparation & Timing Breakdown
After serving the main course at 10:30pm one year, I’ve gotten way better about planning in advance and spreading my preparation over multiple days so it’s not a mad sprint during the day of. Some items I can make well ahead of time since they won’t degrade noticeably, others I can do the day before or morning of before I get around to making the bulk of the dish.
Crisped greens & veggies retain their crunch fairly well for a couple of days if you store them at room temperature on a wire rack and allow airflow to keep them nice and dry, so I sliced and quickly crisped the carrots in a hot oil bath the day before.
The beet purée needed to be made warm then chilled, so that was something else I could make in advance. I had never actually made a purée before, but I knew it was an element I wanted in the dish. Knowing the result I’m looking for but not having the existing skills or recipe idea to get there happens somewhat regularly during more elaborate meals, but that’s nothing a few searches or YouTube videos can’t fix. I have some preferred recipe and technique sources, but if I can’t find anything on those I tend to just pick the one that sounds best out of the top 3 or 4 results.
I hit the first snag at this point — the beets I bought were too light in colour. I needed the candy canes for topping the salad, but the rest in the bunch were golden or white. I got lucky when I remembered that we had some fermented purple beets in the fridge from a previous experiment, so it was an easy improvisation to throw those in too and boost the colour. I had already salted the purée, so the added salt from the fermented beets amped it up a bit higher than I would have preferred.
Since the wild rice also needed to be chilled after cooking it could also be done in advance. I cooked it in the morning and left it in the fridge for a few hours before assembly. Due to low acidity from the other ingredients the rice was chilled with some cider vinegar to give it a slight, but needed, twang.
Other veggies were all chopped and blanched as needed to prepare my mise en place before assembling the salad. The peas and the beets each got a 10 second blanch to reduce the raw crispness without losing colour, while the sea asparagus needed a bit longer. The blanching water was salted, as was the beet purée, with the intent for these to be the main contributors of salt to the final dish.
One of my favourite improvisation choices during this stage was shelling each pea pod carefully with a knife to keep an intact tendril along the seam, leaving the individual peas connected by a thin thread. This was fiddly and I had to do more than a few to get the effect I wanted without losing peas in the process, but I’m really happy with what it contributed to the end result. I’m certain I must have seen this technique before, but since I have no idea when or where the inspiration was more subconscious here.
My plan of attack was to spread the purée, mold the rice, and then build up each layer sequentially from there. That would allow me to clean and retry the purée if I flubbed the spread.
But before I could even get to the rice, the spread purée had already started separating liquid from fat along the edges. This may have been avoided if I’d chilled my plates ahead of time, but it caused a hasty cleanup and revised approach. My new plan would be assembling everything first, then applying the purée as one last flourish. The risk here was that having one shot with the purée would lead to poorer results (which it did, more on that in a bit).
To plate the rice I used a round cookie cutter as a mold that I could drop a thin, compact layer into. As I built up the veggie layers in the first dish it became pretty obvious that the rice needed a binding agent because it started falling apart under extra weight. For the second plate I mixed in an egg yolk before assembling which held together much better.
The veggie layers were fairly ad hoc. Working from the bottom up, larger elements were placed below, then smaller items assembled on top in a way that would provide a good amount of colour contrast. The final list of ingredients in this salad:
- wild rice
- beet purée
- candy cane beets
- golden beets
- crispy carrots
- English peas
- heirloom cherry tomatoes
- sea asparagus
- flower petals
This is where kitchen experience would have helped. Doing this dish a dozen times would help narrow in on a definitive presentation, and then after plating it a few hundred times more over the course of a few weeks I’d get to a point where I’d be able to do it in my sleep. But hey, I’m only making this dish once in my life, so comparing the result to a commercial kitchen is just the wrong yardstick to measure against.
Plating twice helped me get a result closer to what I was looking for, as I got to fix some of the things I didn’t like about the first. But of course I made new mistakes with the second plating. Some thoughts on what worked and what I’d aim to improve next time:
You can see the rice falling apart in the first plating, compared to how contained it stayed in the second. The quick addition of an egg yolk in between platings was a good call.
Proportions between the beet purée and the rest of the dish are way off. My mistake was trying to use too much purée (I made a lot) and not thinking through the flavour or visual balance enough before running a spoon through the dab to spread it out. I’m happier with the first one, but I still think there’s way too much purée on both plates.
Carrots don’t crisp the way greens and starchier vegetables do in hot oil, so my crunchy element ended up a little soggy.
The sea asparagus is almost invisible, and didn’t contribute much beyond a briny saltiness to the final dish. They didn’t detract, but weren’t necessary.
I’m quite pleased with the colour balance of this dish. Such a spread of vibrant colours was pretty hard to mess up, but I think echoing the pink purée with flowers and beets in the salad really tied it together and allowed the contrasting greens to fit in.
The apple slices feel tacked on. They were necessary for a sweetness in the flavour balance, but it was clear I had too many ingredients in the stack so I fanned them out on the edge on impulse. A balancing element on the other side of the stack might have helped integrate them better.
In the second plating, I accidentally buried one of my star ingredients. The candy cane beets are just barely visible poking out of the bottom.
While I was happy with the pea treatment, how I arranged them on the second plate was much stronger.
I tried to get fancy with the flowers, but the placement ended up being better in my head than on the plate. I get why plating tweezers are a thing in pro kitchens.
Overall I’d say my efforts exceeded my expectations. Mixing fresh market ingredients worked as well as I had hoped, flavour-wise. They all combined into a fresh plate of summer, contrasted by hearty rice and earthy beet. And while I have plenty of thoughts on how I’d improve the presentation, I think what I ended up with actually surpassed my inspiration in many ways.