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We all know that eyes also eat. We also know this is a very old expression. Then why did not we consider the possibility of it being so old as the art of plating? Because, from this perspective, the theory of “Oh, that is all modern nonsense” becomes silly. The appearance of a plate has always been one of the pillars of restaurants. At least, regarding the food we want to eat – just by looking at it.
Zé Dias started working as a dishwasher at a cruise ship when he was 12 years old. The only picture I have ever seen of him without a moustache is the one someone captured in one of his few days off, sitting behind his father’s desk in his spacious steward room, writing a nostalgic letter to his mother (my grandmother) and his sisters (my aunts, of course). The best part of the itinerary of Príncipe Perfeito, a ship that was a real giant of the seas, and consequently a symbol of national pride, he said with that glow in the eyes that overpowers us when we were children, was arriving at Cape Town and running to the Cadbury’s store: a magical place where chocolate had raisings and hazelnuts, orange peel and other even more unimaginable things for a Portugal that did not have much. But Africa did. “Lourenço Marques is still the most beautiful place I have ever seen”, he confessed when he was 60, an experienced sailor, with half a world in his memory bag, some ailments due to overworking, and that almost daily need of “going to look at the sea”, whether at Caparica, two steps away, or to the town where he grew up, Vila Nova de Milfontes. To become a steward (the person responsible for the food supply of the ship), the job he kept for the rest of his professional life, he studied Hotel Management. What does one thing have to do with the other? Almost nothing, but that passion never left him, whether applied to pans and pots, big or small. Back home, my mother had the magic and my father had the art. He was in charge of the gravies, the critiques, and he plated the dish – the final phase of a creative cuisine work for only four regular, but demanding customers. So, I grew up spoiled. The first times on a cruise ship, where pride was mandatory, the eyes accustomed to other places, and the less is morethat philosophy came from his Alentejano core (a few herbs here, placed this way over some juicy pieces of roasted lamb) were the perfect match to my mother’s wisdom regarding cooking times and sugar stages. At the table, we received beautiful dishes (that still exist) where the food was placed as orderly as it was eaten, first of all with the eyes – and also with the nose. One day I heard my father say the most offensive thing ever, something very unlike him, but it was concerned with what he loved. Fortunately, he said it very low in a restaurant. The waiter brought us Rancho Beirão. He stared at the mix of chickpeas, cabbage, pasta elbows, carrots and pork. He frowned, then smiled and said: “May God forgive me, but this looks like what we fed the pigs back home. I am going to order a steak.” Charming, Zé Dias. So charming.
Our omelettes are never like the ones we see on cooking shows, the rack of lamb is never so juicy as the one of that Bimby magazine picture, and the pumpkin cream does not hold the croutonsat the surface like in the TV ad. It is an unfair fight. Many have perished in that eagerness, forever abandoning the home stove, and all the utensils they bought with such enthusiasm, to forever surrender to the daily dishes of the diner down the street: codfish with chickpeas on Mondays; roasted chicken legs on Tuesday; codfish à brás on Wednesdays, braised veal on Thursdays and duck rice on Fridays, every single week. But worse than that – you cannot even phantom how much – is to know that you are moderately talented in the kitchen, that you know the most effective tricks for a perfect Codfish Gomes de Sá, the precise time a red mullet takes to grill, the secret for a tender, but not mushy, octopus, and when it is time to plate and be the star of that homecooked dinner, everything falls apart. You have a grinder for the pecorino cheese (parmigiano is for babies), a tweezers so that no asparagus goes astray on the parallel composition, and even thin fingers to put that tiny parsley leave on top of the risotto. But then you look away and… it is a disaster! That is why the old technique of giving the guests a bottle of white single varietal Bical da Bairrada, that makes us crave for Nile perch, without any starter, always works. Famished by the time the dish comes to the table, the guests take such an urgent bit that nobody even remembers making a story for Instagram. Thanks not to God, but to the unequivocal genius of the cook, everything turns out just fine. Except for the plating, that art so few people know.
The most reliable Oxford University made a study that proves, due to A (30 men) plus B (30 women), that an artistically presented dish does, in fact, taste better. The dish in question was a salad, which is very easy to plate. Served in three different ways: replicating a famous painting, in its common form (tossed salad), or in a “tidier” way, with each element (ingredient) separated on the dish. Then the test subjects were asked to rate, from 1 to 10, its “salinity” and “sweetness”. They all scored similarly. However, when asked about the “taste”, the “tidy” salad got the best overall rating. Even better, everyone agreed they would be willing to pay more for that version, although they were told the ingredients were exactly the same, served in the exact same quantities. We must highlight that everyone knows this type of presentation demands greater care and so, there is an added value. At Hotel Schools, the natural trend among students is to present dishes that look as good as they taste. It is as if this new wave of chefsknows that each client is a potential instagrammerwith over 1,000 likes per post. We have a few tips for those who want to look good. Attention, please: since the priority on a dish is to find the perfect balance between flavour, texture and stimuli, it is good to consider some of the basic principles of presentation. First: to imagine the dish as a clock. Done? OK. Now, divide it in three sections: the space between 0h00 and 3h00 and 9h00 and 12h00. The biggest section is between 3h00 and 9h00. That is where the main protein shall stay, whether it is meat or fish. Rice, potatoes or any other carbs should be between 9h00 and 12h00, and the most noble vegetables between 0h00 and 3h00. Why? Because, supposedly, that is how our brain recognizes the due aesthetic value of what it will soon eat. Of course, there are artistic variations created by great chefs, but that would require three other editions devoted to this theme. Details, as not leaving big empty spaces (you must choose the perfect dish size for the quantity of food to be served), the choice of seasonal produce so that the dish becomes more festive, the color contrast between the several elements, and the overall balance (no section should “weight” more than another visually) are also key factors. If there is a gravy or a stock of the main protein, this should be spread as uneven droplets throughout the dish. Shape is also important, so you must, whenever possible, give some “height” to the dish, to contrast with the usual and dull horizontality.
When it comes to Portuguese restaurants, people usually did not know what to expect before they visited them for the first time. It was either that or one of those awful pictures on the menu. Or, even worse, hanging behind the counter, over the drinks’ shelves, retro-illuminated and bleached by the fluorescent light. Meanwhile, social media appeared, and peace was over. A restaurant may show the most appealing pictures on its official website, very well paid to the best food stylistand food photographer. But it needs to take into account that, these days, everybody thinks they are photographers just because they have a cell phone and a few Instagram filters. And it is precisely these people that publish like crazy at Zomato and Tripadvisor. Nobody chooses a restaurant online if its food presentation is not minimally attractive. This means that plating must be as striking that he is like an anti-instagrammer with the flash on. It is an inglorious, slow, hard, and even discouraging work. I am sure that everyone who is reading this have some John at the office who has just bought the latest state-of-the-art Huawei with a Leica lens and photographs everything that moves while managing not to take a single good picture. Yep, that is the one. Do not invite him to dinner. Thank you.
Do not be fooled. At the highest Haute Cuisine, the success of a dish depends as much on its flavor as on its presentation. A chef’s art is as present in his ability to compose something that is like fireworks for the taste buds as in his skill to perfectly transport it from the recipient in which it was cooked to the plate in which it shall be served. Many people fail because they miss one of the steps. Imagine yourself in a room where everything is a messy chaos. Will anyone want to sit on the couch? Now imagine it orderly. The same elements, but carefully presented. Doesn’t that sound more comfortable? With plating, some laws are not meant to be broken. Many times, these are so obvious that nobody imagines that they are like commandments in a kitchen. The dishes’ cleanliness, for instance… A simple stain can generate chaos at the kitchen, where we cannot enter, and so nobody imagines how demanding it is to keep an orderly work environment. Then there is the question of the timings... How many of you think that, on a plate with three elements, prepared by three different people in three different workstations, things must be ready at the same time in order to get to the table at the same temperature? What about the balance between the ingredients’ variety and their contrast? And the way textures combine? For us, mere mortals who stay at the table, waiting for our order, everything seems simple. Behind that door, there is another world – and it mirrors a trend as old as our civilization. Romans, for instance, gave all their decorative attention at the dining room (triclinium). Mosaics and murals, sculptures and noble pieces of furniture were the set for feasts where each one of the three courses (starter, main dish and desert), was brought to the guests accompanied by the sound of trumpets. There are even reports of episodes in which Emperor Claudius sprinkled gold leaf flakes over peas. But it was in Medieval Europe that kings began to hire artists to create complicated sculptures with the food that would be served at the feast in order to marvel the guests. Pies and cakes that released birds when they were cut were not rare. These days, the trend is to suppress the abyss between the rich and the poor as regards food design. Today you can eat a burger carefully plated on a five-star restaurant, but also find exotic and artistically plated produce at local diner. French Haute Cuisine was responsible for eliminating ostentation and establishing the less-is-moretrend that is now transversal.
As a curiosity, we draw attention to a phenomenon that seems to have crossed the borders of Japan, where it was invented (it had to be, right?). Bento Boxes are a Japanese phenomenon which, without following an established law of modern plating, ended up becoming a trend. They are nothing but simple tupperwares (sorry for the advertising) or as we now call them, lunchboxes. In Portugal, they were used at the factories’ advent, in the 20th century (made in aluminum, with pink lids), and they disappeared when nouveau-richness appeared. Since the crisis of 2011, however, lunchbox users back came with a vengeance and today we can see beautiful models in public transports, with lovely patterns and négligé straps. What matters is what it is inside. At least for the Japanese. Traditionally, Bento Boxes have rice, meat (or fish) and vegetables. But the carefulness with which they are put inside the box is amazing. Today it is more than that. Concerned with the lack of quality of the produce used in the school cafeterias, Japanese mums want their kids to eat healthier and more nutritious food. To encourage them to do so, they take the opportunity to show all their love and devotion in genial sculptures. Rice is a panda, helped by the cut shapes of nori (dry seaweed) or another “cute” animal which may have carrot arms or celery legs. This specific kind of Bentos is called Kyaraben, and it is already a global trend among parents concerned with their offspring’s food. They follow the ancient tradition of Japanese plating, that has its epitome at Kaiseki (Haute Cuisine meals with 14 carefully prepared dishes), served in small restaurants in Kyoto staffed by geishas. Of course, that all this has no parallel in Portugal. At least as long as we feel tempted to choose between other more or less appealing dishes on the menu, an alheira (Portuguese bead and poultry sausage) with an egg on top and British chips around it. That does not take us anywhere, my friends.
This article was originally published in Vogue Portugal's Art issue, from March 2020.
Para ler este artigo em português, veja a edição de Arte da Vogue Portugal.