Today we’re going to look at plating and how it relates to restaurant science. We will focus both on the type of plate as well as the food that goes on it.
Many features of the plate itself play into how your customer perceives their meal. The color, size, border, shape, and material all play a role and should be brought into consideration.
White is obviously the standard plate color and should be
your standard go-to. White plates give a clean palate to accent the food against. White plates rarely detract from the food and are a safe bet with most foods. So when should you use colored plates?
Colored plates are useful for items that are more white in color, foods such as Pasta Alfredo, Vanilla Ice Cream desserts, and burritos can often be lost on the plate which makes them appear less appetizing.
Black plates can be used to backdrop vibrant colors especially bright greens, yellows, and reds, however these plates should be used only with specific dishes.
For other colors, make sure the plate accents and does not detract from the food you put on it. You want your customer to think, “wow that looks delicious” instead of “wow, nice plate.” If your plates or dishes are too unique, you’ll likely have a good number of them stolen as well, as sad as that is.
The size of the plate makes a difference as well. You typically want your plate to closely match the entree size. Serving a 6oz tenderloin on a 14 inch circular plate is going to make that steak look much smaller than it even is. The only exception to this is if you use heavy culinary arts and fancy sauce patterns and other accents on the plate to feature the steak as not only food but art. This is for a certain clientele though and would likely not be well received at a fast-casual restaurant or a supper club.
The shape of your plate can make a difference as well. Square plates have seen a heavy surge in the last decade. These can give your restaurant a more modern feel versus circular plates. Oftentimes the arrangement you can do on a square plate may be more appealing to the eye as items can be more strategically arranged. One down side is square plates is they typically get broken quicker as the edges get dinged in the dish pit.
The border on your plate makes a difference as well. Typically there should be no food on the border of your plates. This ensures that the food runner or server does not have to touch your food when handing it to you. While this can be accomplished without ever touching the top of the plate, the majority of your serving staff likely does not use this technique. Furthermore, the border helps to focus the customer’s eyes on the food by drawing a nice frame around it.
Borderless plates are also seeing a rise and are usually of a fancier variety often with curled edges or corners. These are useful for specialty appetizers, tapas, or small culinarily artistic entrees and are typically seen in higher end restaurants or used on higher end items. When using plates without a border, still try to keep an artifical border around the edge of about an inch where food does not reside for the reasons listed above.
With bowls, if there is a border around the outside, you can fill to near full, but be careful when delivering to try not to spill on the border. With borderless bowls, leave a vertical border in the bowl creating a separation of white-space between the food and the top of the bowl.
Regardless of the plates you get, one of the most functional decisions you can make regarding plates is ensuring they are stackable. You might have really cool plates but if you can’t stack them higher than 3 high, you may not have room for them on your line.
As for plate material, porcelain or ceramic china are typical in restaurants from fast-casual to high end. Plastic plates and baskets are more commonly used in buffet settings, fast food, and sometimes family-style restaurants. Wood and glass are also used to give a little character to the dishes.
So, when should you use different materials? If you have a restaurant where there will be extensive handling of the plates, especially by customers such as a buffet setting, plastic will give you the best durability and likely stackability. They can also be tossed through a dishwasher quicker than china or glass.
If you are a fast food or fast-casual restaurant you’ll likely want to use plastic baskets with liners or even cardboard trays to make items easier to hold in the hand. Plastic baskets can bring back the diner-style feel to aid a restaurant theme as well.
Sit-down and formal restaurants likely want to look to China style plates that bring a more formal feel. If you have entrees beyond just burgers and sandwiches, you’ll likely want to put them on China.
Entrees such as salmon can be accented on a nice cedar wood plank. Wood can also be used for fresh baked breads or cheese flights. Wood bowls for salads can give either a modern or homelike style depending on the design. Wood should typically be used sparingly for specialty items and not for all of the items in your restaurant.
Finally, glass is commonly used for salad plates or desserts and are nice for items that need to be served on chilled plates.
In the end pick a primary plate for the majority of the items in each category. For instance, the majority of salads should be served in the same style of bowl and the majority of your burgers should be served on the same style of plate. This makes plating quicker for your kitchen staff, makes doing dishes easier, and it requires less space to be taken up due to several different types of plates. Further, this helps you accent certain entrees on a different plate style which helps them stand out in the dining room. Hint: Use unique plates on items with good margins.
When placing the food on your specifically picked out plates you want it to look as appetizing as possible. There are numerous different methods and styles you can use, but you should focus on a couple of different features that should help you out: Color, height, odd numbers, and white-space.
First off, no matter what you are serving you should always try to get several different colors on the plate. In a burger you have orange melty cheese, bright red tomato, and fresh green lettuce; show them off a bit. Make sure the colors can all be seen when stacking the burger. Serve it with the top bun leaning on the side if needed. Put a colorful sauce in a Ramikin, even ketchup, to serve on the side to bring some extra color to the plate. Have a Pasta Alfredo dish that is all one color? Chop up some fresh parsley and sprinkle it over the top or mix in some tomato or broccoli to get that extra color. Maybe sprinkled cajun can add to the color.
Every meal should have asditionally have a garnish that can add to both the color and the ‘odd number of items’ suggestion listed below. Sandwiches can have a pickle spear, coleslaw, or fresh fruit. Entrees might have a breadstick, asparagus spears, or a lemon to squeeze over the top.
Second, try to get height within your dishes. The food should not all lie flat on the plate. Salads and pasta can be fluffed up. Steaks can be propped on the side of potatoes with the asparagus leaning up. You can have fries standing up on a plate using a metal ring, or stack a burger high and shove a knife down the center to make it stand majestically.
Adding height allows guests to see the layers of the food, and allows sauces to drip making items appear more savory and delicious. It makes them appear more artistic and shows care and attention to detail. It adds an extra connecting experience that makes guests appreciate their meal and the restaurant more.
Next is odd numbers, admittedly this may seem like a peculiar one if you haven’t heard it before. The concept is to try to keep an odd number of items on the plate as odd numbers attract the eye better than even numbered items. If you have chicken tenders serve 3 or 5 instead of 4. The garnishes can play in to plate numbers as well as you have can have a sandwich, fries, and a pickle. Odd numbers again. Don’t count to make sure you have 35 fries instead of 34, you don’t need to keep it that specific, but keeping odd numbers in mind will help make your plates look more appealing and will attract the eye better.
Lastly, white-space is important. We touched on this a bit above suggesting that you leave a border or margin around your food. However, I wanted to touch on this in plating as well. Make sure at least 10% of the plate can be seen as it helps to accent and frame the food and gives the eyes a resting spot as they admire the food dish.
This is a general introduction to plates and plating. There is a lot of restaurant science and psychology involved in your plating process. Customer perception can be drastically improved using a couple of deliberate considerations related to the presentation of the food.
All of these are guidelines and can be broken to match your theme or restaurant branding. For instance, you can ignore white-space on plates if you have a restaurant that specializes in absurdly large portions. Or, if you have a restaurant called The Blue Plate Cafe by all means serve your food on blue plates. The main purpose of this article is to get you thinking about your plates and plating and making conscious decisions to improve your presentation and brand.
Using a little bit of restaurant science in your plating decisions should help to lead to happier customers, better presentation, and the sale of higher margin items. Get plating!