Go Ahead, “Eat with your eyes”
Jamie Vincent Bordonaro
Declaring that we “eat with our eyes” not only fails to warrant groundbreaking status but classifies as downright cliché. Only a thorough analysis of several dimensions of aesthetics in cuisine can provide justice for the significant role played by the presentation of a plate. This discussion reaches far beyond the instant gratification offered by popular social media platforms. I delve into the seductive nature of aesthetic qualities such as color and geometric shape, as well as the perceived value of a dish.
One of the most basic understandings and relations of sight from the beginning of our lives is color. A rainbow represents a breathtaking interplay of perfect harmony. In food, the juxtaposition of ingredients with contrasting color schemes immediately engages the intrigue of an eager diner. Showcasing a deep, bold, and perfectly seared and braised short rib—glazed with a dark and viscous reduction sauce—atop a luscious mound of bright and smooth pommes puree allows the meaty centerpiece to shimmer in the romantic lighting of a restaurant and protrude prominently in the middle of the plate. A mango salsa signals to the diner that the bite from the sauce will elicit tropical notes, creating an expectation of sweet, sour, and spicy without even giving a whiff to the dish. Look even deeper into the salsa or fruit in general and examine the brightness and vibrancy of each piece to garner an understanding of the potential ripeness or freshness of the upcoming bite. Color also expresses a technical prowess—or lack thereof—in a plate of food. Common culinary wisdom dictates using a large pot of boiling, salted water to blanch green vegetables, prior to shocking in an ice water bath. The illuminous effect of perfectly cooked peas and fava beans to grace a delicately cooked halibut filet instantly heightens the senses (emphasis on senses). Even something as primal and simple as the rosy, red bullseye in the center of a properly cooked cut of beef marks the sign of tenderness and succulence in meat cookery.
Ordering consommé from a fine dining establishment should guarantee an immaculately clear broth, devoid of impurities. The orange scented duck jus alongside that beautifully crispy and properly rendered breast garners a great deal more intrigue and excitement when there appear to be no signs of fat droplets or traces of albumin floating about. Purees of various vegetables and fruits should also appear homogenous and smooth when described as such. This validates the great efforts put forth by the chef to pass and strain the purees and sauces for the utmost level of textural and aesthetic pleasure.
In defense of molecular gastronomy
I care much less about turning some puree or broth into a noodle and putting it on a plate than I do about the commendable efforts of modern techniques to create a level of refinement in terms of presentation and technique that would otherwise be unthinkable. Fluid gels are a product of the molecular movement that have become much more commonplace in fine dining settings. In terms of aesthetics and presentation, creating a fluid gel serves an immensely crucial purpose. Adding a touch of lemon or lime juice to a plate may perfect the desired flavor impact. However, if the stunning visual effect of the dish would be muted and distorted with the addition of a liquid, modern technique can alleviate the possibility of failure. Turning lemon juice into a fluid gel will not only transmit the desired flavor, but potentially enhance the final aesthetic of the plate with its uncanny smoothness. The sous vide technique predates many of the other weapons in the molecular arsenal but remains to be perceived as a modern approach to cooking. A short rib cooked sous vide for 48 hours cooks at such a low temperature that it not only maintains its shape but takes on a beautifully pink medium- rare interior that signifies that intense level of moisture and tenderness within. Even the preliminary step of vacuum sealing a piece of watermelon creates a stunning visual that defines the fantastic experience of compressed fruit.
In light of the importance of a colorful display on a plate, the geometric qualities and shape of ingredients also shine as markers of quality in aesthetics. A plate of roasted vegetables will instill great confidence in the diner if they are cut into equal sized shapes. Not only does the consistency in dice dictate knife skills from the chef, but also serves to satisfy the age-old mantra of, “even cut, even cook”. When taking the time to cut each vegetable to the same dimensions, culinarians have more control over the cooking process of each ingredient. Also, speaking strictly from a geometric and artistic standpoint, evenly slicing ingredients into perfect (or as perfect as achievable by humans) measurements brings about a certain harmony on the plate otherwise unachievable through carelessness. For a more complex technical example, take a chicken ballotine. The ballotine involves deboning a chicken and wrapping the breast around a forcemeat from the leg, thigh, and innards using the skin that was skillfully removed. The creation of a perfect cylinder, roasted and sliced evenly on the plate showcases proper technique that elicits even cooking and optimal moisture content.
The discussion of value is difficult to expound upon but must undoubtedly be addressed in a discussion of aesthetics. The issue of value is subject to the intended audience of the dish being served. From a very elementary perspective, a larger portion of protein is expected from a value steakhouse. The sheer girth of a 24-ounce ribeye slammed onto a dinner table justifies the legitimacy of whatever price has been placed on the meal. However, satisfaction over a three-ounce cut of Wagyu beef served as the twelfth course of a 24-course tasting menu in a three Michelin starred restaurant is not in any way obscene. The portion size in accordance with the scope of the meal as a whole will always be visually satisfying when in proper balance. This maintenance of balance in a meal of portion size, quality, and courses serves to meet the value criteria for aesthetic excellence in food.
Before even taking a bite or taking in the aromas of a dish, our appetites are scintillated with the mere sight of menu descriptions. The incredible and complex interplay of color, geometric form, and value
in the overall aesthetic outcome of a plate of food creates masterful works of edible art that nourish our intellects and appetites simultaneously. Akin to applying a plate wipe to the finished dish heading to the dining room, I’ll run this bad boy through spell check because we eat… and read with our eyes.