Being a personal chef does not strictly limit you to preparing meals for clients for them to eat throughout the week. Personal chefs can wear a number of other hats, including catering. And while your food may be just as tasty when you store it in a container as when it’s served on at the table, when it comes to creating a dinner party or other event, you need some additional skills in your arsenal.

One of them is the art of plating.

New York City APPCA member Jim Huff of Traveling Culinary Artist prides himself on his plating skills. He’s been a personal chef since 2004 and, as he says, “I still pinch myself now and then to make sure I’m not dreaming that people pay me to pursue my passion for cooking.”

Jim takes great pride in listening to his clients’ wants and needs and responding to them to ensure they are getting what they expect. As he says, “While being a business owner I have parameters and the ability to say no, but I maintain that flexibility is the most important part of the personal in being a personal chef.”

As we all know, there’s not much that motivates us to work harder and with more pride than a compliment from a client. Jim gets these regularly. Most recently, he says that after a dinner party he catered, “The host said that everything was delicious and well-presented and that he was impressed with my creativity and talent as a chef. While I enjoy being paid nothing makes one feel better than hearing compliments like that.”

We want you to get that same buzz of excitement from praise, so Jim has written this piece for us that shares his successful plating philosophy.

Jim Huff with APPCA executive director Candy Wallace

Jim Huff with APPCA executive director Candy Wallace

Recently, I was involved in a discussion about plating for dinner parties, how to balance the needs to make the food look awesome vs. the need to get the food out while it is still hot. In a commercial/restaurant kitchen with a staff this is probably a no brainer. It’s not as easy in a client’s kitchen designed for family convenience. In the beginning stages of my business I fretted over this and finally developed a formula that works for me and has pleased my clients.

In a simplified form my philosophy is to wow them with a great looking appetizer/first course and an interesting appearing dessert. Not that the courses in between should be sloppily served, but frequently the main entrees are a modest serving on the dinner plate atop or alongside the side dish. A sprinkling of a chopped herb, a dusting of paprika, droplets of flavored oil or drizzle of balsamic glaze can provide a decorative as well as a taste-boosting factor to the basic plate.

Based on the hostess’ preference we often plate the Wow First Course and have it on the table when the diners arrive at the table. This provides a great way to bring the conversation to a halt and get people seated and eager to start their meal. Other hostesses prefer everyone to sit and then service to begin. This also provides for switch in the conversation to the food and its appearance. Either way, we eat with our eyes first and this is the ice-breaker for what is to come.

Beet Goat Cheese Napoleon

Beet Goat Cheese Napoleon

The first example, my Roasted Beet & Goat Cheese Napoleon is playing up the values of color and elevation. By choosing to alternate red and golden beet slices we have actually enhanced the strength of the brightness of each color. Garnishes such as the puree, the chopped pistachios, microgreens, and pistachio oil take the plate beyond just a vessel to eat from. Obviously white plates are the easiest to show off color.

White Asparagus with Crispy Prosciutto

White Asparagus with Crispy Prosciutto

The second example brings the plate more into the picture, White Asparagus with Crispy Prosciutto. The plate’s leaf shape and color offset the bland color of the white asparagus. Keeping everything flatter, closer to the vessel keeps the plate in focus. The reddish brown of the Crispy Prosciutto draws the eye across the plate making it seem larger than it is. The garnishing elements of baby arugula, chives, and breakfast radishes are there to provide that sharp visual contrast to the blanched asparagus. It is finished with a simple Lemon/Garlic/Chive Vinaigrette to provide a subtle hint of yellow and green with a sprinkling of lemon zest for a flavor boost. Not shown in the picture are antique salt dishes, each filled with Himalayan pink salt for dipping the radishes.

Artichoke with Tomato Salad

Steamed Artichoke with Cherry Tomato & Red Onion Salad

I apologize for the third picture being out of focus but I think the idea is clearly represented with the Steamed Artichoke with Cherry Tomato & Red Onion Salad. This was a way to add pop of color to a food vessel that under the best of circumstances looks tired and/or worn out: the steamed artichoke. This is bumped up by topping it with an Heirloom Cherry Tomato & Red Onion Salad.

The sheer simplicity of the presentation focuses everyone’s attention to a classic table setting. The dish is served on glass plates over the dinner plate and charger and coordinating placemats on a glass table top. The diner eats the artichoke petals, which are marinating in the salad’s vinaigrette, as well the salad. Heartier appetites dig out the heart and enjoy that as well.

Hummus Trio

Hummus Trio

The next picture is of a Hummus Trio hors d’oeuvre. Sometimes the simpler vessel highlights the color contrasts. We have Classic Hummus in the center with basil leaves peeking out, Edamame & Cilantro Hummus on the left with a radicchio leaf, and finally Roasted Beet & Horseradish Hummus with endive petals.

Nutella Raspberry Mini Tarts

Raspberry Nutella Mini Tarts

On the subject of color coordination, a dessert buffet provided a happy accident when we were able to use a glass tray to show off the fabulous tablecloth while highlighting the Raspberry Nutella Tarts. This shows that massive quantities can also have that wow factor in the sheer number of items on a given vessel.

Dessert Plate

Mini Dessert Plate

And finally a busy plate of mini desserts provides an array of sweets that have individual eye appeal. Clockwise from the top are: Key Lime Pie Shooters, Red Velvet Whoopie Pie, Brownie Drowned in Ganache with a Raspberry, and a client-provided chocolate chip cookie.

Truth be told we don’t often have the opportunity to pre-plan all our presentations when working with a new client if we have not seen their choice of dinnerware. In my experience I’ve had to deal with blue Wedgewood prints, gold-encrusted florals, black and white Paisley, purple pebble appetizer plates, even once Dineresque Beige Melamine! That means I have to draw on a good eye and some of the approaches mentioned here to create a visually exciting presentation on the spur of the moment.

In a nutshell, my philosophy is to visually wow them at the beginning of the meal, meet their expectations with hot tasty entrees and sides, and then wow them again at the meal’s end with colorful desserts that don’t promote that end-of-the-meal laden feeling.

How have you honed your plating skills? Have any additional techniques to share?

Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.