When asked his thoughts on non-traditional plating techniques, Jamie Simpson, executive chef of the Culinary Vegetable Institute, pointed out that it’s important to first consider traditional plating. By that, he meant what foods were placed on the plate, along with how they were prepared and in what proportions.

“Using that perspective,” he says, “this type of plating consists of putting food that’s about 70 percent cooked protein, traditionally prepared, on a plate—with most of the rest of the plate containing traditionally-prepared vegetables. To finish it off, there might be a wedge of lemon or sprig of parsley added as a garnish.”

About 20 to 30 years ago, Chef Jamie explains, fine dining restaurants began to challenge expectations about proportions and presentation, with numerous other types of restaurants joining in this plating trend, as well, especially over the past five years or so.

“Most places by now,” he says, “are modernizing their plating presentations. I’m not saying that what was done in the past was necessarily wrong. They represent a period in time.”

There are health-related reasons that are helping to fuel what foods, in what proportions, are appearing on today’s plates. “Food provides us with the nutrients that sustain us, with vegetables and all their versatility moving towards the center of the plate. As this vegetable forward movement is taking place, creative chefs are using different cutting and cooking techniques with them, also using different—and more—parts of a plant, which leads to more fun and dynamic plates.”

Non-Traditional Plating

Jamie believes that Instagram has been playing a significant role in the expansion of the creative food plating techniques being used today. “The spread of an artistic technique can happen instantly, and people around the globe can become immediately inspired by another chef’s plates.”

For example, when Jamie created a sea urchin ice cream dish, plating it in a way that gives the appearance of a sea urchin crawling along the ocean floor, the response was tremendous—and lightning fast. “I saw that chefs in Croatia, in Lebanon, and in all sorts of other countries were looking at this plating on Instagram, tagging the Culinary Vegetable Institute as they began plating that way, too. Instagram is so powerful, globally.”

Chefs can look through literally thousands of concepts online and then pull what’s relevant for their restaurants, for their environments. “Presentation and plating today,” Jamie adds, “is a huge part of the dining experience. And, it should be. If an ingredient is precious, then I believe you should treat it that way. Don’t just consider it a garnish.”

In the sea urchin ice cream dish that garnered worldwide attention, he set his ice cream on a black sesame sponge cake and used the concept of negative space to evoke the feeling that the sea creature was gathering together marvelous flavors as it inched along. As a diner would gaze at the plate, he or she would see the urchin in a moment in time, in part because of homemade stencils used to create this impression, as well as artistic placement of ingredients and more.

“As I create a dish like that,” Chef Jamie shares, “I use ingredients and plating to direct the way the dish will be consumed and can, to a degree, control the flavors that people are consuming and the rhythm in which this is happening. Sometimes, we keep things tight within a single dish. Other times, we use plating as a powerful tool to bridge the pathway from one course to the next.”

Also, as he plates a new dish, he takes screen shots of the entire design process, from the original idea to the subsequent steps taken to the final product—and then how chefs around the world respond. The Culinary Vegetable Institute chefs can then use these screen shots as inspiration and guidance for the next modern plating adventure.

Here’s another example of Jamie’s creative plating of ice cream, with this dish containing beeswax ice cream, citrus marigold, creamed honey, benne and citrus lace.

Plus, it’s worth taking a second look at his potato salad that contains the standard ingredients of this popular dish, and then “transforms it with a textural roller coaster by using thin crispy slices of potatoes molded into a unique shape.”

Experimenting with Plate Abandonment

In New Orleans recently, Chef Jamie fed 1,500 people without using plates or cutlery. “I wanted to create,” he says, “a fully tactile, immersive experience for people, one that reconnects diners with where their food comes from.”

Ways that chefs can skip the plates—and forks, knives and spoons—include:

  • serving hors d’oeuvres on honeycombs
  • hanging cucumbers and lemons off of trees
  • filling wheelbarrows with baked potatoes

“This also took the zero-waste concept to a new level,” Chef Jamie shares, “as the food was delivered creatively without the use of tableware that was traditionally considered necessary. People enjoyed the experience, one that was even more powerful because it wasn’t expected. I believe that any technique that helps diners to understand where their food comes from, and helps them to acknowledge the season and location, can be positive.”

Still other methods include to:

  • use an overripe piece of fall squash and split it into a bowl
  • bleach or wash femur bones till white, and use them to serve beef in a rebuilt composition to show where the meat came from
  • use the appropriate size of tree branches after they fall
  • dig clay from the ground to create plates

“Think about things to use,” he adds, “that are fully and naturally decomposable.”

More About Narrative Plating

For Jamie, with plating, story is everything.

When he starts to create a new dish, he focuses on what we are experiencing right now, and how that can translate into a theme for that dish—whether that means a particular time or place, or an ingredient or something else entirely. For example, the theme could be that flavorful overlap in time when both peas and carrots are in season.

Not surprisingly, Jamie finds much of his inspiration out in nature. “I walk through the farm. Walk through the garden. Through the woods. Any part of it.”

When telling a story about the turnip, for example, he says the following: “The turnip can live high and low, left and right, wide and lean. It can sort of become this modular ingredient. I think it’s really dynamic. So, we do some raw turnip applications. Maybe some turnip leaf applications. Maybe some turnip flowers. As we work our way down, we’ll go into maybe a poached turnip, turnip purees. We get into the fermented turnips. We get into these big hard core seared grilled turnips, and then we look for charred and blistered, those kinds of things. Petite turnips can live here, those that are also charred.

“And then you need a bridge,” he adds, “an ingredient to sort of bring it all together. In this case I’d choose goose liver or chicken liver or duck liver or some kind of iron-y thing. We could make a mousse from it. A big spoonful. You can take a little and bring it all the way through. You’ll experience turnip at every stage of doneness and ripeness of its life, kind of working your way down the line. Naturally, a fork will go to a specific part of the dish first, depending on the way it’s presented.”

Another dish of his that tells a story is when Jamie created a blended carrot soup, freezing it inside silicone molds shaped like carrots. He then dipped them into carrot cocoa butter, which created a hard outer shell that contained the soup as it melted. Then, diners got to be part of the unfolding of the story as they used their spoons to break the shells and release the soup onto a bed of soil made from ground and roasted purple carrot and butter.

This dish created a story all by itself, one that highlights the beauty and versatility of carrots, but the intent went beyond that as Jamie was giving a nod to Swedish scientist Ellen Hendrén, and her research on bioavailability, digestion and carrots. More specifically, she discovered that beta carotene is only three percent available when carrots are eaten raw. Blended, the number goes up to as much as 21 percent. Blended and cooked? 27 percent. When fat is added to the blended/cooked carrot dish, it’s at 39 percent—and Jamie’s unique plating told that story.

Modern Plating: Colors, Textures and More

The Culinary Vegetable Institute is blessed to have a partnership with Steelite®, one of the world’s leading manufacturers and suppliers of award-winning tabletop products. Because of the stellar quality of their products, sometimes the plates, bowls, cups and platters serve as the centerpiece, with a dish designed around the tableware.

For example, a stunning translucent gray plate served as the perfect backdrop for a dandelion composition where the stems curled around that plate, ribbon-like, with four upright columns of pureed spinach gelatin standing tall in the center. When building this dish, Jamie used dandelion leaves that were as translucent as the plate itself after using a vacuum compressor to force out the water and break down the cell structure of those leaves. To add another touch of color and visual appeal, a long-stemmed yellow bloom that resembled a large dandelion was gently added, with dandelion petals sprinkled on the plate.

Chef Collaborations

At Roots 2017, one of the panels was titled “The Art of the Meal: Ingenious New Plating Ideas,” with one participant being Chef Bradley Kilgore. He shared with Jamie how he thinks of his dishes as edible mosaics, edible pieces of art, and how he enjoys creating forward-thinking presentations that are sometimes interactive experiences for his guests.

Chef Bradley also compared creative plating to writing a poem. In each case, he shares, “you’re trying to get a message across. But, with plating and food presentation, everything needs to also taste great. So, with poetry, you can put ink on paper. With food presentation, you’re in effect creating your own ink out of, say, vegetables so the final product also has the taste you want.”

Here, Jamie collaborates with Certified Master Chef Rich Rosendale to create gorgeous plates.

A Word About the Psychology of Plating

A psychologist at Oxford University, Charles Spence, has said that “when the plating is artistic, people tend to enjoy the food more than if the same ingredients were just dumped on the plate.” That’s because, at least in part, fully half of our brains participates in visual processing, which means what you see has a significant impact on an experience. This provides chefs with incredible opportunities to capture the imaginations of those they serve and “Whether you use the sequence of dishes, evocative ingredients or inspirational arrangement of the food, your story is what will make your food stand out.”

Plating at the Culinary Vegetable Institute

When you come to one of our events, don’t expect to be served sea urchin ice cream that captures the flavors of the ocean, or potato salad that’s a textural roller coaster. That’s because, at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, each and every event is a unique, never-to-be-repeated event.

We focus on offering events with flavorful, artistically-presented dishes that contain ingredients of the highest quality with a dedicated focus on reducing food waste. You can count on an opportunity to celebrate a precise moment in time with food that captures a pristine expression of seasonality.

You can appreciate all that Mother Nature has to offer as her bounty is rendered on one single plate—the course that’s right in front of you—featuring the best of a day’s harvest at a precise moment in time.

You can enter a world of pure imagination: the Culinary Vegetable Institute, located in the heartland of America: Milan, Ohio.