Presentation of Food

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PRESENTATION OF FOOD. The presentation of food often refers to its visual composition on the plate, in a state of readiness to be eaten. Modern color photography has promulgated enticing artworks that have come to be the signatures of stylish cooks. All manner of theater is employed in the careful display of food to consumers, appealing to all senses, not just sight, and appearing not just at meals, but throughout the entire marketplace for food.

Plate Presentation

Cooks often pay close attention to plate presentation, choosing ingredients and techniques to suit a desired effect, following a standard arrangement and wiping away drips. Some foods are included mainly to set off others, such as a parsley garnish, and such elements as shells are not to be consumed at all. Checking the food's appearance, which is the cook's last task, becomes the eater's first. Diners are often transfixed by the food when it arrives at the table, as if taking in the whole meal. Yet even the most impressive sculpture collapses at the strike of a knife, fork, or spoon, so that plate presentation is evanescent.

Vision is crucial in identifying ingredients, their quality, and the techniques used, and even has a bearing on the perception of flavor. A dish not displayed traditionally may "not taste the same," and an unfamiliar color, such as blue, may be off-putting.

Japanese diners recognize the importance of eye appeal, to the extent of photographing their meals at restaurants around the world. Their cooks display fanned slices, neat parcels, sculpted vegetables, and noodles placed in soups. Cut fish displayed without sauces contributes to a clean look. Chefs might "spend the day considering the aesthetics of arranging three sardines," according to Richard Hosking in A Dictionary of Japanese Food (p. 209). Moritsuke (food arrangement) follows seven basic patterns, including sugimori (strips and slices of food in a slanting pile), kasanemori (overlapping slices), tawaramori (blocks or rounds placed horizontally in a pyramid), and so on. Illustrating invention within a highly regulated framework, the shojin ryori cookery tradition arranges food like a seasonal landscapeperhaps blue mountains in summer, red in autumn, brown in winter, and flowery in spring. The resulting scene is so abstract that it may appear as one or two objects on a plate to the untutored eye.

As Japanese cooks and diners also appreciate, food is framed by the plate, which might be a beautiful object in its own right, and by the table setting; by other foods, including drinks; by decorations, such as flowers; and by a garden outlook or streetscape.

By contrast, some gourmands in the European tradition worry that an overemphasis on appearance downplays food's other qualities, notably taste and flavor. These cooks may contend that the visual aspect is food's most superficial and that the eyes are quickly contradicted by the tongue.

Atmosphere and Setting

Even before seeing the food, diners might be enticed by menu descriptions. Cooks sell their efforts through sizzling sounds and enticing aromas, so that food is presented at the right temperature and dish covers removed to release captured smells. A charming dining room is comfortably warm and filled with the right music (which might be only the clink and chatter of dining itself). Presentation is also social, and servers participate through such means as well-spoken descriptions, the use of elaborate platters, and carving at the table. Food is also generally enhanced by a convivial circle; many good meals are enveloped in conversation.

Much effort goes into presentation away from the table, too. Market stall-holders stack food showily, shopkeepers arrange eye-catching window displays, and confectioners design luxurious-looking chocolate boxes. Hot bread, roasting chestnuts, and coffee sell themselves through aroma.

Food Fabrication and Marketing

The modern industry fabricates foods from non-traditional ingredients and additives to look like a familiar product (margarine masquerading as butter; emulsifiers, thickeners, and artificial flavors masquerading as ice cream, and so on). Teams of brand managers, flavorists, marketing specialists, graphic designers, and others devise new products, whose acceptance hinges on presentation. Advertising programs, promotions through free samples, discounts and prizes, and point-of-sale materials and packaging provide the final sales pitch. Marketing relies on supermarket shelf exposure, which is boosted by multiple sizes and flavors, and on food's photogenic qualities, which are geared to be so mouth-watering as to induce sales.

Purpose of Presentation

The drive toward balancing colors and textures in front of the eater, experienced in all cuisines at least rudimentarily, has a nutritional basis: providing a healthy variety. Responding to contemporary dietary trends, cooks may include, for instance, green and orange colors in their presentations. Another source of the cooks' aesthetic impulse is the mixture and distribution of ingredients according to a routine or pattern. This repetition can lead to a pared-back elegance.

Cooks who want to show off ingredients find that presentation encourages inspection. Alternatively, in search of amusement, cooks may make foods look like something else, such as a fish made out of vegetables. Cunning cooks can contrive the look of expensive, forbidden, or unobtainable ingredients, and war-time rationing has encouraged such subterfuge. The profit motive comes in here, too, with growers and manufacturers employing many scientific meansfrom growth hormones to artificial flavorsto improve the appearance especially of cheaper and more readily handled products. Presentation can hide food's origins; some vegetarians contend that meat-eaters only find meat palatable when it no longer resembles "dead animal."

In The Civilizing Process (1939), German sociologist Norbert Elias argues that the increasing complexities of society are accompanied by more self-restrained, courteous, and sophisticated culture, including refined food presentation. Demonstrating social power with extravagant displays is captured in American sociologist Thorstein Veblen's phrase "conspicuous consumption" (The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899). Presentation can also symbolize a seasonal festival or other occasion, as in the historical development of the white, possibly tiered, and carefully decorated cake as the nuptial centerpiece. Cakes were first used for weddings in the seventeenth century and became the familiar gleaming structure in the nineteenth.

Food is styled to look good in photographs for mass-circulation newspapers, magazines, and cookery books. Many cooks also follow an artistic impulse beyond mainstream lifestyle publications, seeking to avoid last year's accents and playing a competitive game through fashion. Because the pressures to achieve elegance, pretense, camouflage, and artistic expression can spoil the final effect, critics have long demanded that presentation be simplified and that food should look more "real."

Ancient Lavishness

Elaborate presentation has its roots in ancient times. The Greek epicure Athenaeus describes lavish feasts, not uncommon in third century B.C.E. Macedonia, at which as many as twenty guests were crowned in gold tiaras and presented with silver cups to keep. Mountains of food were pressed upon them, accompanied by musicians, dancing girls, and drinking. A large pig was then carried in, its belly disclosing numerous birds and fishes. After more drinking, guests were served a piping-hot kid, with another silver platter to keep, as well as spoons of gold, and ivory bread baskets. Naked women tumbled among swords and blew fire from their mouths before crystal platters arrived with baked fish.

Such excesses were also frowned upon. Some of the mightiest medieval minds, including St. Thomas Aquinas, considered gula, or gluttony, the foremost of the seven deadly sins, and Chaucer's Parson inveighed characteristically against the "apparelling," or dressing up, of food, which included pastry and aspic designs, marzipan armorial quarterings, meat dishes such as Cockentrice (the front half of a chicken sewed to the back half of a suckling pig, and vice versa), and "musician" pies that contained live instrumentalists.

Most famously, at seventeenth-century Versailles, under the "Sun King" Louis XIV, court life consisted of vast dinners enlivened by musicians and fireworks and the arts of conversation and good manners. The king, as the head of the household, lived in semi-public ("in state"), a crowd watching as he arose (lever ), went to bed (coucher ), and had meals in between. Parisians and provincials would come to admire Louis XV's fine bearing and elegance, and his deft striking off of the top of a boiled egg with the back of his fork.

Adapting the royal family's grandeur, the ambitious French chef Marie Antonin Carême published in Le pâtissier pittoresque (1815), one of the earliest of his several books, more than a hundred depictions of pièces montées, elaborate architectural pastry follies.

At table during the London "season" early in the nineteenth century, conversation was prevented by a "huge centre-piece of plate and flowers." It was "strange that people should be invited, to be hidden from one another," wrote the English advocate of a simpler "Art of Dining," Thomas Walker, in his weekly newspaper, The Original (2 September 1835; 1928, p. 11), noting that fashionable tables required "excessive breadth" to hold the cumbrous ornaments and lights, the dessert with side-dishes. He opposed fussy cooking, especially "a very inconvenient love of garnish and flowers, either natural or cut in turnips and carrots, and stuck on dishes, so as greatly to impede carving and helping. . . . But there is a still worse practice, and that is pouring sauce over certain dishes to prevent them from looking too plain, as parsley and butter, or white sauce over boiled chicken" (1928, p. 14).

Perhaps all the singing, dancing, fabulous table displays, glamorous surroundings, and networks of diners and servants meant that presentation had overwhelmed the food. However, lavishness lent importance to the entire social and cultural event, a point recognized by the Parisian restaurant of the late eighteenth century, which attracted customers with mirrors, upholstery, and elegant service. Here individuals could order anything from a list at any time and even for a table of one, thereby narrowing the focus to what appeared immediately in front of them and giving rise to the modern fixation on the plate. In The Invention of the Restaurant, Rebecca Spang finds "a world in which eating was not a biological imperative but an artistic passion, and in which food came not from farm or field but from ornately decorated boutiques." The new gastronomic writers hailed "the grand restaurant's ability to stimulate and satisfy any desire" (pp. 150151).


Fashionable food presentation moved toward a simplifying modernism during the twentieth century. Worshiping "the geometric splendor of speed," the Italian branch of the Futurist movement under Filippo Tommaso Marinetti turned food into art in the 1930s. The Futurists advocated "optimism at the table," accompanied by "experimentation with new, apparently absurd mixtures." Believing that "form and color are just as important as taste," they struggled against "puddles of sauce, disordered heaps of food, and above all, against flabby, antivirile pastasciutta" in an appeal to Italians to abandon pasta that captured headlines around the world (Marinetti, pp. 21, 36, 38, 67, 133).

French semiotician (scholar of signs) Roland Barthes ridiculed "ornamental cookery" in one of his Mythologies essays written between 1954 and 1956. The color photographs in Elle magazine sold a "dream of smartness" to the working class, he wrote. Shown from a high angle, at once near and inaccessible, the food could be consumed "simply by looking" by people who could dream of partridges but not afford them. Any actual food was "no more than an indeterminate bed-rock" beneath "sedimentary layers" of smooth "coatings and alibis." For the "primary nature of foodstuffs, the brutality of meat or the abruptness of seafood" was buried beneath sauces, creams, icing and jellies. These coverings were the blank page for a "fairy-land reality" of chiseled mushrooms, carved lemons, shavings of truffle, and arabesques of glacé fruit.

French restaurant cooking returned triumphantly to the basics with nouvelle cuisine in the mid-1970s. The waiters were less likely to serve from silver platters ("flats"); instead, cooks positioned the food carefully in the kitchen and on plates about one-third larger, accentuating the lighter portions. The food was more geometrically laid out, relying on the natural colors of the primary ingredients with sauces underneath rather than on top. This less laborious food required more genius, and so was often copied badly. But the trend spread quickly, largely because of its striking, somewhat Japanese look, originally photographed from above but increasingly from the side to benefit its often elevated constructions.

Food for the Camera

Food that is cooked for the camera is captured by specialized photographers attuned to the fashion demands of art directors for billboards, television advertisements, magazines, and cookbooks. The focus, color, shine, and unreality of food photo spreads have earned the epithet "gastro-porn." Because posed food will wilt, shrink, go soggy, dry out, and lose its gloss under the lights, "food stylists" are just outside the shot, coaxing food into pleasing shapes with tweezers, syringes, sprayers, and dry-ice. They employ refillable butane blowtorches and paint strippers to help with "cheese melts" and browning. The stylists employ hairspray and jars of Aqua Gel to make realistic-looking water droplets or to thicken sauces. Since the food is to be seen and not eaten, mashed potato might masquerade as ice cream.

Dishes, such as one-pot stews, that do not photograph well may have their recipes excised. Cuisines, such as those of India, may be considered unfashionable, because they have typically been arranged in several dishes, any one of which might look somewhat nondescript.

In turn, cooks can become overly inspired by brilliant photography. But they should be careful not to make food seem too good to eat, as if it were some untouchable work of art, as the German sociologist Georg Simmel warned in his 1910 essay on the meal. Good presentation can contribute greatly to, but should not be allowed to distract from, either conviviality or the appreciation of the food's natural roots.

See also Advertising of Food ; Art, Food in: Film and Television ; Chef, The ; Cookbooks ; France: Tradition and Change in French Cuisine ; Japan: Traditional Japanese Cuisine ; Luxury ; Marketing of Food ; Restaurants ; Sensation and the Senses ; Serving of Food ; Styling of Food ; Waiters and Waitresses .


Athenaeus. The Deipnosophists. 7 vols. Translated by Charles Burton Gulick. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 19271941.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.

Charsley, Simon R. Wedding Cakes and Cultural History. London: Routledge, 1992.

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony. New York: Braziller, 1976.

Elias, Norbert. The Civilising Process. 2 vols. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Oxford: Blackwell, 1978 and 1982. Originally published in 1939.

Hosking, Richard. A Dictionary of Japanese Food: Ingredients and Culture. Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle, 1996.

Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. The Futurist Cookbook. Translated by Suzanne Brill. San Francisco: Bedford Arts, 1989.

Simmel, Georg. "The Sociology of the Meal." Translated by Michael Symons. Food and Foodways 5, no. 4 (1944): 345350. Originally published in 1910.

Spang, Rebecca L. The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Symons, Michael. A History of Cooks and Cooking. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Walker, Thomas. The Original. London: Renshaw, 1838. Originally published in 1835. Selections have also been published as The Art of Dining. London: Cayme Press, 1928.

Yoneda, Soei. Good Food from a Japanese Temple. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1982.

Michael Symons