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I'm getting close to pulling the trigger on a couple books about plating from Amazon (Food Styling, by Custer, Dishing with Style, by Trovato, perhaps Culinary Artistry, by Dornenburg), but before I do, I figured I'd ask if anyone here has tips or resources that may be of help. I'm thinking websites or book recommendations, but any advice will do.

The lower the cost, the better, but since I'm willing to buy a book or two, I'm willing to put the money elsewhere as well.

Thanks!

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Culinary Artistry is a good reference, but it's arrangement is kind-of random and lacks much in the way of coherent instructional content. There's a food pairing "index" (really the guts of the book) that's useful however. I suggest looking at it in a bookstore before you buy it. –  Pointy Jul 28 '10 at 17:51
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up vote 10 down vote accepted

http://www.tastespotting.com is everything you need. You will get hundreds of ideas there.

Also, remember what the director of my culinary school says: "Food should look like it fell from Heaven onto the plate." Don't get too fussy in other words.

Editing to add a more complete answer.

The ability to plate effectively and beautifully is a combination of two things: an artistic eye and technical skill.

The latter I will deal with in a moment. The former requires some inborn talent, but it can be nurtured. Teach yourself about basic visual concepts such as proportion (how things relate to each other in size), contrast, and negative versus positive space (positive space is the space actually taken up by what you are working with; negative space is the empty space. Much as in music, it's the spaces between the notes that bring interest to the whole assemblage).

Then start paying attention to the plates you see. What do you like about them? What don't you like. Then go out, buy some play-doh, make some food-shaped things and some sauces of various consistencies, and start playing with your plates. A note: almost every fine dining restaurant in the world uses white plates exclusively. There is a reason for this; it shows the food off better. That being said, there is a time and a place to break that fashion. Sometimes for tradition (charcuterie and cheese plates are often served on wooden boards) and sometimes for dramatic effect (a pure white cream soup in a black bowl, e.g.)

Now, on to technical skill. The first and most important thing to do is think about how you are going to plate the final dish before you even start prep. This thinking will inform how you cut your products, what shapes you are looking for, and what consistency you want your sauces to be. It will also inform how you prepare your garnishes--are you looking for something upright and dramatic? Something smeared across the plate? You need to plan ahead, and that means careful knife skills and sauce work. Keep colours in mind, too!

Then you need to start practicing on how you sauce your plates. Thinner sauces/flavoured oils will spread. Thicker sauces and purees stay in place, and thus can be shaped. The first real skill I learned for saucing a plate is using a thick puree, dropping a dollop on the plate, then quickly smearing with the back of a spoon. When done right, it can be very pretty, and for that reason is quite common. it's also the sort of thing you only tend to see at restaurants, to it often impresses dinner guests at home. The easiest way to practice this technique is with homemade mayonnaise.

You will also want to invest in a couple of squeeze bottles. This will allow you to place (thick) sauces wherever and however you want. Again, mayonnaise is a perfect consistency to practice with. Just whip up a batch and spend your afternoon playing.

Also, if you're putting sauce on the plate with a spoon, use the spoon end-on, don't drop it from the side of the spoon.. You will have much more control this way.

Then comes the rest of the food you're putting on the plate. With anything that has been fried, sauteed, or roasted with juices, always pat the bottom dry on some paper towel first, to prevent runoff on the plate (unless of course that is what you want). Tongs are invaluable until you get your fingers to a point that they can tolerate relatively high heat. And always remember: once you place something, that's it. Moving it around will cause mess and problems.

For more advanced techniques, look at things like ring molds (for packing loose products together) which are available in a wide variety of shapes. Plain tin cookie cutters also work very well for this purpose, and are FAR cheaper than ring molds. Also teach yourself to make quenelles, the football-shaped blobs made by shaping something soft in two spoons.

Hopefully that all helps.

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Wow, very nice answer - have lots of reading and studying to do :). Thanks! –  awshepard Jul 30 '10 at 13:57
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Another fine book is Working the Plate. Custer's book is great, but it is all about styling food for photography, not for eating - a very different thing.

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