HOLD on to your napkin for a moment, and try to quench that loud gurgle in your stomach. We know you’re hungry. We know you’re ready to use that shiny fork as a battering ram. But before you dismantle and devour that dish of artfully-decorated food placed in front of you, take a moment to look at it. Really look.
If you happen to be dining in one of the more inventive restaurants in Langkawi, it’s possible that what you see recalls a Modern art canvas or a garden setting. Or even a two-year-old toddler’s latest excursion into finger painting.
“Food has definitely taken centre stage in recent years,” says executive chef Mandy Goh of St Regis Langkawi, adding blithely: “Plating up isn’t like the old days where the meat and three veggies were lumped next to each other on the dish. You can be as creative as you like when presenting a meal, and remember, there are no rules!”
No rules? The slightly built chef stands behind the countertop of Kayuputi’s large yawning kitchen with a mischievous grin etched across her face. Milling around her, draped in aprons and torque blanches (the ubiquitous white starched chef’s hat), a motley group of journalists are being presented with the opportunity to learn the art of plating from the erstwhile chef herself.
It’s of course a culinary adventure of a different sort at this beach enclave. The delightful over-water restaurant has been recently listed in the ‘Top 52 Restaurants and Bars by Marriott Bonvoy” from amongst 2,800 participating Marriott International restaurants and bars across Asia Pacific.
Goh has one of the more coveted jobs in her field: executive chef of the St Regis Langkawi, the ultra-luxury resort that overlooks the breathtaking Andaman seas, overseeing the operations of brasserie L’Orangerie, over-water restaurant Kayuputi and the Gourmand Deli.
For the 32-year-old chef, this is yet another feather in her torque blanche — one that’s suspiciously missing from her tousled head as she stands like a benevolent sentinel of her kitchen, with an array of utensils, ingredients and bottles arranged artfully across the counter-top.
“I’m leaving this to you,” she announces again, grinning. It would’ve been quite exciting if only I wasn’t completely useless in the kitchen. Now sheer panic threatens to take over.
How do I even begin? How do I know what food pairs with what vegetable? What’s that green liquid in that bottle? What’s that surgical-looking equipment over there?
CREATIVITY IN PLATING
There’s an almost indiscernible link between abject beauty on your plate and the taste that swirls in your mouth. Good plating can elevate an average dish to a new level and make the dining experience even more memorable. The presentation of food in a restaurant is as important as the flavour, as per the old adage, “you eat with your eyes”. The way food looks on a plate indulges the senses and makes you want to eat it.
Whether smeared and swirled across a white plate, stacked beneath a tower of flowers in a ceramic bowl, or strewn like debris atop the surface of a log, the way the food is laid out reflects an aspect of a chef’s craftsmanship that can be just as crucial as the ingredients in the dish.
To plate like a pro, you need to first create your dish like a pro. And that’s not just about cooking well, or creating balanced, beautiful-looking food. As Goh explains, the art of plating is about working within a vernacular of textures, colours, and preparation methods. “Just think… taste, textures and colours,” she reminds us.
“For fine dining plating, you know there’s going to be different elements on a plate,” she adds. “There’s going to be a puree, a shave or a chip — something with a crunch.” On top of that, you could add a bit of charcuterie, a pickle, and a finishing sauce or two.
Sounds simple enough? Not to me, I murmur. Our main protein, she goes on to announce, are the mud crab and fish. “There’s cod, halibut and a snapper,” she names them, adding gaily: “You can choose and decide how you want the fish prepared!”
I gulp. At this stage, I’d be grateful if my dishes turn out edible. I. Am. Lost. And the same terrified look I catch from my aproned colleague by my side assures me that I’m not alone in being a complete hack in the kitchen.
But plate we must and plate we do. Goh’s army of kitchen aides are at hand to ensure we’re not putting up complete duds on a plate. “That’s impossible,” she reassures us. “All the ingredients we’ve prepared complement each other. It’s pretty difficult to go wrong!”
Stop panicking, I tell myself sternly. There’s no danger of burning down the kitchen here. With those comforting words, I slip on my gloves and prepare to unleash my creativity on a plate. With an array of tools like stainless steel tweezers, precision tongs, spatulas, squeeze bottles and moulds, it’s easy to play pretend-chef.
I pair my mud-crab with nectarine and sprinkle my snapper (or was it halibut?) with deep-fried quinoa for a bit of crunch. Never mind the fact that I can’t cook to save my life, at least my years of watching cooking shows have finally paid off.
And they’re done. Whipping off our torques, we breathe a sigh of relief. Our dishes look amazing. “Not bad at all,” observes Goh, grinning, as she takes in the dishes that we’ve plated.
Some of us could very well be artists. After all, in a modern restaurant the chef can see himself as a single artist, the plate as his medium and the dining room and staff, like a good gallery; a neutral setting for his colourful genius. But for Goh, it’s all about the food.
“Simplicity is always beautiful,” she reminds us. “One thing to keep in mind, though, is that your primary focus should be the quality of your ingredients and execution of your technique used in cooking.”
I’m not exactly a fan of crab, but the success of the food arrangement (mine) is the fresh foil for the seafood, the wild rocket leaves, nectarines and edible flowers.
Visually, the greens put the eater in mind of nature’s delights rather than the weathered chef’s fingers or the sterile kitchen that might have been involved in the preparation. It also doesn’t reveal the plater’s initial terror at being trapped in a kitchen.
It looks beautiful and good enough to eat. Out comes the forks and our works of art gets messed up in a flurry of activity. I’ve enjoyed knowing what I’m eating. Works of art or otherwise, it’s still a glorious plate of great food. And as I discover in this beautiful restaurant on a brilliant sunny afternoon, a great plate of art will always showcase that truth.