`Working the Plate' by cookbook writer and TV cooking show producer, Christopher Styler offered great promise as a text on an arcane corner of culinary artistry which chefs such as Bobby Flay and Mario Batali can do so effortlessly on `Iron Chef America', and yet when mere mortals try to do the same, we come up all thumbs.
The hefty pricetag from the classy textbook publishing Wiley gave further promise that the book had weighty promise. Before I cracked the covers, I itemized a list of things I would expect to find in such a book, such as knife and mandoline techniques; sauce making; squeeze bottle techniques and general techniques for decorating with multi-colored sauces, ring mold carpentry (well, PVC pipe cutting, really). In short, I expected something like a `Martha Stewart Plating Handbook' where every technique is explained in exquisite detail. That is not what this book is about.
That is not to say that there are no good plating ideas in this book. Especially ideas you are not likely to find in cookbooks other than those from the very high-end culinary artists such as Keller, Rippert, Boulud, Portale, and Tramonto, or on `Iron Chef America'! There are several knockout ideas here which are actually relatively easy to do, as long as you have the time and some basic knowledge on how to work with the raw materials.
My favorite example of this situation is the excellent little technique used to plate the `All-American Sundae Chocolate Bowl'. In a nutshell, the technique involves coating half of a simple small rubber balloon with melted chocolate, cool the chocolate, burst the balloon, and extract your thin chocolate bowl in which your ice cream or anything else you want is served. The problem here is that melted chocolate is one of the world's fussiest ingredients, as it can't get too hot and it can't touch water. But this book assumes you know all that. Of course, if you are a culinary school graduate or a foodie of long standing, this is no problem. In fact, I admire the simplicity of the technique. One can for an afternoon imagine you are emulating Jacques Torres or Pierre Herme in creating cleverly molded chocolate serving ware.
Weighing heavily on the plus side of the ledger is the fact that although there are few techniques (eight plating styles with one to four recipes and techniques per style), each technique is very nicely illustrated in a series of three or four pictures after the photograph of the completed dish and a narrative describing the dish. What is very odd is that we get no standard recipe for any of these dishes. There is no list of ingredients with amounts or details about preparations. And, aside from the captions to the pics illustrating the techniques, there is no real procedural write-up. This odd state of affairs is tempered somewhat by the fact that there are standard recipes in the back of the book for all the sauces, dressings, and other decorative preparations such as mushroom jus and bell pepper puree.
These basic techniques are far more important than their being divided up into the eight styles, which are Minimalist, Architect, Artist, Contemporary European, Asian, Naturalist, Dramatic Flair, and Desserts. To me it seems these distinctions are totally arbitrary and of no value in a `how-to' manual. And, the author goes so far as to say that it is the rare chef who would work entirely within one or another of these styles. All this leads me to believe the styles were cooked up by the author simply to make the book seem more authoritative.
The problem is that this book is not dedicated to `how-to' narrative. It is dedicated to culinary titillation, with a bit of technique added to give you some basis for hands-on participation. My best illustration of this claim is the fact that in the narrative description of `The Minimalist' style, the author paints a word picture of `a cube of perfectly cubed tuna set atop fresh corn relish and a pool of silky-smooth coulis.' Now why couldn't the author spring for an accompanying picture of just such a dish? And, no dish of that description is to be found among the three archetypes for minimalist plating.
Interspersed among the recipes and the various styles are profiles of ten (10) major chefs known for their skill in presentation. These are Wayne Harley Brachman, Terrance Brennan, Andrew Carmellini, Susan Goin, Sharon Hage, James Laird, Emily Luchetti, Tadashi Ono, Kent Rathbun, and Marcus Samuelsson. All the thumbnail narratives about and by these chefs are interesting and informative, but they are not essentially connected with the techniques or `styles' described on the accompanying pages.
The subtitle, `The Art of Food Presentation' tells the story in that this is more like a picture book of frescos and less like a manual on how to go about painting frescos. The unfortunate aspect of that emphasis is that the culinary photography is relatively weak. I would expect most or all pics to be taken from directly above the plate and at a decent distance so that nothing is out of focus. Instead, most pics are taken from about 10 to 20 degrees above the level of the table and a few inches away from the plate, so that the foreground third of the plate is in focus, but the remaining two thirds of the plate are out of focus.
I confess my comparison with a fresco picture book is an exaggeration. As I have already said above, the book does give a great little tutorial on about 25 different plating techniques, some of which one can easily do oneself, but the heavy pricetag is paying more for the mediocre photography and the celebrity sketches.
Since there are so few general books on plating, the dedicated foodie and the professional will get much from this book, although they could have gotten more with more attention to technique and less attention to flash.