They say people eat with their eyes first. And as any chef or food stylist will tell you, the adage is spot on. “Even when you’re in a hurry, taking just a few seconds to create a visually beautiful dish will help make your guests feel special,” says Charleston-based food stylist Cynthia Groseclose, whose clients include Food & Wine and Garden & Gun, among others. They’ll also be more eager to dig in. So what are the keys to turning a meal into a work of art that’s sure to impress? We spoke with Groseclose and other industry insiders to get the scoop.
Plan ahead. “Look at what’s in season, and consider those foods’ hues and textures,” says Culinary Institute of Charleston instructor Randy Williams. “I’ll start with a protein and build from there. In the summer or fall, it might be shrimp; in the winter, it’s braised meats.”
Add color. “The more vibrant a plate can be, the better,” advises Time Inc. Food Studios stylist Catherine Steele. “If everything is of the same palette, it’s not inviting or exciting.” She finds heirloom tomatoes particularly useful for sprucing up pastas or salads: “It’s only one ingredient, but you get a variety of colors.”
Garnish wisely. While fresh herbs can always do the trick, “stick with those that are already seasonings in the dish,” says Groseclose. Other no-fail additions: a coarse grind of salt or pepper; a tab of compound butter with herbs to add a hint of green to a brown steak; and if there’s lemon juice in the recipe, a quick grate of zest.
Control portions. “I tell my students not to be scared of white space on a plate,” Williams says. Give foods room to be presented—and opt for a shallow bowl or low-rimmed platter for pasta, salads, or roasted vegetables, suggests Steele. “You want to be able to see all of the elements.”
A less-is-more idea also goes for sauces and dressings, especially to avoid wilted lettuce or clumping. “Don’t overdo it,” says Groseclose. “You can always serve extra on the table for guests to help themselves if they want more.” Steele likes placing small bowls directly on a dish: “There are even tiny spoons to match.”
Arrange naturally. “It’s okay for foods to not be perfectly piled or if they snuggle together. You don’t have to be fussy,” Steele suggests. Still, don’t mistake “uncomplicated” for “effortless” and serve guests a dish that’s too low-maintenance. “It can be challenging to make one-pan meals—like casseroles or slow-cooker recipes—look pretty on a plate.”
Serve in style. “There was a time when everything had to match,” Williams says. “Now there’s a big movement toward using mismatched antique-style plates or multi-colored Le Creuset dishes.”
Hand-thrown ceramics are also in, adds Steele, along with copper, gold flatware, and long, slender serving utensils. “Modern” is another buzzword. “A modern-looking platter might have some irregularities,” she notes, “but not hard edges. It’s sleek and minimalist, with an organic feel.”