The arrangement of each element on a plate directly influences a dish’s taste and impact.
First impressions are everything.
“The presentation of your plate tells your member exactly who you are as a chef,” says Angus McIntosh Jr. (pictured), Executive Chef of The Farm at Brush Creek Ranch in Saratoga, Wyo.
McIntosh is meticulous about the composition of each dish he serves. “We’re ingredient-focused,” he says. “Our plating represents that. We don’t overload the dish or make it unnecessarily complicated.”
TJ Garrish, Executive Chef of L’Hirondelle Club (Towson, Md.), has a similar philosophy. “Each plate is like a blank canvas,” he says. “Once I have a concept of the dish, I sketch out how I think the plate should look, incorporating color, texture, the rule of odds and negative space.”
Most of the time, Garrish’s sketches look quite similar to the final plate. Sometimes they don’t. Regardless, both Garrish and McIntosh plate in a way that elevates the flavors while enhancing the visual appeal.
Beginning with Ingredients
Plating is a constantly evolving part of the culinary world. The way each element is arranged directly influences the taste of the final dish.
“Beautiful plates start with beautiful ingredients—and none are more beautiful than the ones we produce here at Brush Creek,” says McIntosh, who worked in some of the country’s most progressive kitchens, including The French Laundry and The Broadmoor, before coming to Brush Creek 16 months ago.
Because the property is located in a rural part of Wyoming, the supply chain is somewhat limited. But that hasn’t stopped the club, or McIntosh, from creating a five-star dining experience.
Instead of relying only on local purveyors and Wyoming’s short growing season, Brush Creek built its own greenhouse and hired a horticulturist to cultivate much of the produce McIntosh uses on menus.
The property also brought in its own agricultural specialist, who is breeding wagyu exclusively for the club.
In addition to the greenhouse and the cattle, the club is also raising 30 goats who currently live off-site while their stalls and a creamery is built. Once their new home is completed, the goats will produce milk for cheeses, butters and creams.
“Our team, from the owner to each manager, puts their heart and soul into each ingredient,” says McIntosh. “My job is to make those ingredients shine on every plate we put out.”
One example of McIntosh’s commitment to Brush Creek’s ingredients is his Wagyu beef consommé. Served in a glass syphon, the dish is captivating.
“We stack all of the dehydrated herbs, onion, carrot, celery, and juniper in the top of the syphon,” says McIntosh. “We put the broth in the bottom chamber and present it to the table, where we turn on the heating element. As the broth heats, it moves up the syphon and steeps in the herbs for about 45 seconds. Then we cut the heat, the broth descends, and we pour it directly into the guest’s bowl.”
It’s a showstopper—and when one guest orders it, eleven more follow.
Dishes like the consommé are developed during an intensive R&D period with McIntosh and his team in the slower winter months. Once the menu is finalized, the chef de partie produces it over and over, until each dish is consistently perfect.
“I can master a dish, but that means nothing if the cooks can’t do the same,” says McIntosh, who involves his cooks in the entire process.
“Fine dining and plating is about precision and nuance,” he continues. “Members and guests are inundated with imagery—especially on Instagram. We have to find creative new ways to plate dishes so that the design doesn’t detract from the actual experience of eating, but does make an impression.”
Straight from the Drawing Board
Like McIntosh, Garrish R&Ds his menu just as intensively. He begins by sketching each dish and testing the plate before refining it and testing it again. Then he and his team collaborate and test more, until the final dish is consistently perfect.
“We recently did a sweet bread with a butternut risotto that just didn’t pop,” says Garrish. “The flavors were excellent, but something was missing. We switched to a black stone plate, and it transformed the whole dish.
“The canvas—the plate—is so important,” he says.
Garrish’s favorite dish of late? A sous vide duck breast with beets three ways, arugula, blackberry demi, and chocolate coffee powder.
“There’s richness and color in the composition,” he says. “We use candy-stripe, red and golden beets with blackberries and the perfectly cooked duck. It sits atop a chocolate coffee powder that is sprinkled on only half the plate. It’s finished with bright micro greens.”
The dish has depth and dimension, and the negative space reinforces the colors and composition, Garrish notes. The best part? It’s one of the club’s best-selling items.
A Left-Handed Chef
Both McIntosh and Garrish are inspired by culinary titans like Escoffier, Bocuse and Ducasse.
“When you look at what chefs like Michel Bras did, you see elements of control amid chaos,” says McIntosh. “The impact of their plating style echoes through my cuisine. But I approach every dish asking two questions: How can I make it unique? How do I make it my own?”
The answers to these questions often come from the most unexpected places.
McIntosh, who is left-handed, works alongside Executive Sous Chef Drew Anderson, who is right-handed. When they work side-by-side, they occasionally bump elbows. This has the potential to pose problems when the line is busy and plates are being pushed out quickly. So to solve the problem, McIntosh relies on his own ambidextrousness.
“When I worked at the French Laundry, I was responsible for the oysters-and-pearls dish,” he says. “When I went to plate it for the first time, the chef stopped me. He said, ‘This dish is made to be plated by a right-handed chef. You’re going to stand here and plate it until you’ve mastered doing so with your right hand.’”
Years later, the ability to use both hands has proved invaluable. And it forces McIntosh to think through every step of his plating process, to ensure the choreography of the kitchen is seamless.
Eye of An Artist
For as long as he can remember, Garrish has had an eye for art. This passion translates well to his plating process.
“My menus are highly seasonal,” he says, adding that new dishes are introduced everyone four to six weeks. “Once we build out the flavors of a dish, I incorporate modern techniques to enhance it—whether that’s a puree or a cracker or something else entirely.”
But Garrish is careful to show restraint. “Modernist methods are useful only when they enhance a dish,” he says. “They must be used thoughtfully. And they must be simple to incorporate into the final plate.”
To ensure consistency, quality and speed, Garrish is laser-focused on his line’s mise en place.
“Most of our plates have a foam, a gel, a crumble or a powder,” he says. “We put each of these components on the line, ready to use in squeeze bottles or deli cups. Then, with purees, cooks must only swoosh a spoon. With powders, they can sprinkle them like seasoning. Having the right mise makes it work.”