A wise man told me once "the eyes are the first to dine". So true. If the dish doesn't look pleasing at first sight it simply won't be enjoyed as much. Even something as easy as a sprinkle of freshly chopped cilantro can make a big difference to a bowl of shrimp curry.
I've seen and been through many plating and presentation trends throughout my years as a chef. These have included everything from classic "French" presentations, where more emphasis was spent on the elaborate placement of the food, to stacked skyscraper-plate presentations (which are, by the way, a server's worst nightmare: heaven forbid the tower should tumble before the plate makes it to the guest during the short voyage from the Chef's pass!) Then there's what I like to call "tweezer food", where ingredients are delicately and intricately assembled by an army of culinarians using - you guessed it - surgical tweezers. You can spot these dishes a mile away thanks to elements like spruce fern buds which have been artistically placed among sous-vide Caribou medallions with strategic "random" precision on the rustic slate slab. When the dish arrives at the table the diner is evidently meant to be teleported to the Boreal Forest where the spruce once took root.
Whatever plating technique is in play, it remains all too true that the eyes are the first to dine. I have the pleasure of teaching our culinary future at the Shaw Centre and at Algonquin College and one of the most gratifying phases of this is watching cooks improve their plating skills. Initially most plating attempts are very cautious and, for lack of a better word, flat. There's nothing wrong with flat but sometimes flat can be uninspiring. Gradually, as time passes and with much experimentation, I see an improvement and for the most part an individual's personality starts to emerge in the way they arrange and plate a dish.
At the Shaw Centre, each plate's presentation is established and standardized so that the consistency of portioning, appearance and flavour is achieved each and every time. My leadership group and I coordinate this for our team. At Algonquin College, however, the students break off into small groups, each one preparing the same recipe, and coming up with their own presentations. It never ceases to amaze me how 20 students can present the same food so differently.
I'm often asked to offer a few tricks of the trade so that home cooks can improve their presentation skills. Start at the beginning - when creating a menu try to include a variety of textures. This will elevate your dish and give you a wider variety of elements to plate with. For example, whole roast chicken with creamy mashed potatoes and vegetables includes a straightforward set of ingredients that can be brought together to present a wonderful, wholesome dish. This sounds just fine, but with a few simple touches you can enhance the taste and presentation immensely. Make a cranberry-onion compote the day before; this can be warmed slightly and splashed on top of the chicken to add a deep red highlight and refreshing tartness. Crispy-fry a julienne of shallots, sprinkle on top, again adding a visual element, another flavour facet and crunch.
I frequently remind home cooks to please try to avoid using inedible garnishes. Nothing is more passé than a woody rosemary sprig, a shard of lemongrass, or a lobster's shell. I have been guilty of this in the past, it was all the rage at one point, but there are so many other ways to garnish a dish rather than to use a raw herb stalk. If you are using an herb as a garnish, please make sure it is appropriate to the dish. Use fresh chopped Italian parsley for a simple pasta dish, crisp tempura-fried cilantro to add crunch and flavour to your chickpea tomato curry, or a bundle of baby arugula tossed with a squeeze of lemon on your homemade flatbread pizza.
The china you use can have a dramatic effect on your final presentation, however please proceed with caution. Most importantly, food needs to be delicious first and attractive second. To up your presentation game, consider using a unique vessel to serve your dish rather than a plate. Try using a small cedar board, a rustic slate slab or a highly polished stainless steel frying pan. Glass plates can also add a nice dimension to a dish.
Much like painting or sculpture, food presentation is very subjective. However, much like many aspects of cooking, with practice comes confidence and skill.