A pool of black ink ended abruptly against the arc of the white canvas, creating a stark study in contrast. In the center, the focal point of the piece floated like a small, lost ship in the opaque sea. The pale white legs of its passengers dangled dangerously over the sides, beckoning whatever might lurk beneath.
I studied this piece for a moment, but the destruction of beauty was inevitable. I plunged my spoon into Chef Cristian Pietosa's squid ink soup and slurped down all those little mollusk passengers aboard the Toasted Ship Brushetta at Nicola's Italian Restaurant in Over-the-Rhine.
Mother might have been right in one sense -- it does all go to the same place -- but we certainly don't want it to look that way at the table. We eat with our eyes long before anything slides down the gullet.
That's why those pictures in nutrition and health books look so unappealing. White and rubbery, a naked chicken breast is serviceable no doubt, but it's anything but enticing. Dress that little hen up with a drizzle of roasted red pepper sauce and a sprig of basil and you have the beginnings of something -- the beginnings of food art.
While the ultimate goal in fine dining is always taste, Clinton Jones, executive chef at The Palace restaurant in the Cincinnatian Hotel, says that sight is the first sense of the diner you touch.
The way a meal looks can create a sensation of desire and anticipation.
"If you're visually stimulated," says David Cook, chef/owner of Daveed's Restaurant in Mount Adams, "you've already made up your mind that you're going to enjoy it."
Traditionally, the plate was viewed as a clock face -- the starch positioned at 10 o'clock, the vegetables at 2 and the entrée from 4 to 8. Today the clock has evolved into a canvas and the ingredients into the chef's palette.
Our plates brim with vibrant red radish roses, splashes of edible flowers and chocolate curls, all stacked or strewn according to the creator's inspiration. Like the visual artist, the chef manipulates line, color, composition and shape, coaxing our stomachs to rumble so loudly that we have to suck in a breath to avoid the embarrassing stares.
As with any art, there are trends. Cook says he sees chefs moving toward the seasonal and simplistic in plate presentation, with color choices as well as ingredient choices reflecting the time of year. He's seen this trend in his own cooking over the years as well.
"I've become more simplistic and less jazzy," he says. "Initially, when I was trying to come up with a style of my own, I thought I had to use more color. Now I use less ingredients and like an artist would use a canvas, I use a white plate."
On this plate Cook creates simple lines, streaking the canvas with flavorful sauces that provide the background for the petite portions of food in the foreground.
Trends or not, there seems to be as many approaches as there are chefs in the kitchen. The minimalist prefers not to douse with sauce too liberally and to keep colors and shapes to a minimum. And no frou-frou stuff on the edges of the plate, please.
This vision might take form in the simple act of sprinkling chopped parsley over the salmon for color or through a careful balance of symmetry and color, as in Stefan Kraus' Vegetable Napoleon at Aqua in Mount Lookout. Here harmonic shades of green and white are blended in an oval stack of cucumber, diakon and pickles between layers of green edamame purée.
Others channel Jackson Pollack. Defying a focal point, they brandish plastic squeeze bottles of basil oil and red pepper coulis working rapidly as the muse inspires. Some approach the plate even more boldly; like Vasily Kandinsky they create sweeping forms bathed in color, wearing their squeeze bottles in holsters at the ready. Or like the Neo-Plasticism Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, they labor more like a scientist, controlling vertical and horizontal lines and applying primary colors.
Some continue to build phallic structures of meat and starch or present birdcages of caramelized spun sugar encaging chocolate ganache towers, inspiring drama in their dishes. Others, like Julie Francis, the chef/owner of Nectar in Mount Lookout, believe that the materials speak for themselves.
"You want to respect the ingredients," she says. "I don't have any hard and fast rules. It depends on the food. I try to present in a way that showcases the ingredients."
The artist, whether in the kitchen or the studio, rarely imagines life without art, and for the chef, life equals food. So the next time you're out for a meal, take pause to enjoy the beauty of the canvas. Then pick up your knife and fork and truly appreciate the chef's work of art.
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