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Gastronomy  |  Dossier Dishing up Art

A Feast for the Eyes Chefs as artists: each plate a masterpiece

©Vertigo Genève

That our plates have turned into works of art dates back to May 1968 when the trend known as nouvelle cuisine was popularised in France. During a time when authority was questioned, everything was permitted.  

"With time we have found ourselves once more faced with the excesses of 19th century decorative cuisine that we opposed in the early days of Gault and Millau. Sometimes it is as though the dishes that are served at the table should be framed and hung on the wall!" This comment was not just made by anyone: Christian Millau, who co-founded the famous Gault&Millau guide together with Henri Gault at the start of the 1970s, does not hide his perplexity regarding what is served on his plate today.

 
 

Food critics Christian Millau and Henri Gault called the shots in the world of French gastronomy for a number of decades. In fact, it was around the start of the 1970s(1) that the presentation of dishes started to change. Notably the Troisgros brothers were the first to adopt the oversized "American plate" and to introduce the tasting menu, which, with its small portions, turned the world of culinary aesthetics on its head. The popularisation of nouvelle cuisine in 1972–73 accelerated the movement and saw the majority of the grand chefs, from Michel Guérard to Roger Vergé, Jacques Maximin and Freddy Girardet, pay particular attention to the presentation of food and the order that dishes are served in. According to Gil Galasso, author of a recent thesis on the art of carving, the 'commandments of nouvelle cuisine' promoted by Christian Millau and Henri Gault (1973) generally imposed plated service, rendering the ancient science of the head waiter obsolete(2).

An overwhelming stew

After initially giving prominence to French-style service, where all the dishes are placed on the table at the same time and the guests serve themselves, then the adoption of Russian-style service (dishes served in order at the table), these methods were abandoned in favour of a plated service.

For Bénédict Beaugé, food writer and essay writer, it all began with an anecdote: "One day the Troisgros brothers had to prepare the famous Dodin-Bouffant stew for some friends. This mythical and literary dish comprises a multitude of ingredients. When visiting their tableware supplier, the Troisgros brothers discovered some 32-centimetre diameter plates upon which they decided to serve individual portions of the gigantic stew for each of the guests." The experience was more than conclusive: The chefs maintain control of the visual presentation and, without delay, the dishes are served at the right temperature, the losses are minimal and the portion sizes are perfectly calculated. Thus codes of cuisine were overturned. 

 
 

Great chefs and reality TV

Almost half a century has gone by since the 1970s, during which the great chefs have been in constant pursuit of excellence. These master chefs have become real national and international stars, opening one establishment after another.

In favour of distant travels and cultural blending, the staging of dishes began to be enriched by exotic elements and, with the development of the Internet and reality TV, a real social phenomenon has emerged. "Visual presentation has become of the utmost importance, since the cooking that we see on television or on the Internet is not for tasting, it is for admiring," comments Philippe Germain, author of Visions gourmandes, dedicated to the art of presentation, published in March 2015. Strangely enough, there are very few courses dedicated to attractive food presentation. Roger Moulin, Chief Executive of the Culinary Arts Academy Le Bouveret, which trains the great chefs of the future from around the globe, admits that there are no courses on the programme dedicated to this art. "We teach them a little about culinary photography but not the presentation. There are so many different styles in this domain and they change very quickly!"

Visual presentation is a sign of excellence

According to Knut Schwander, responsible for the Suisse Romande version of Gault&Millau, beautiful presentation must be a sign of tasty food. "Today, new cooking techniques have fostered a beautiful evolution of presentation on our plates with the use of wonderful vertically arranged dishes. This reminds me of Jérôme Manifacier in the kitchens at Vertig’O at Hôtel de la Paix in Geneva. Some of his presentations make me think of charming gardens or the display window of a grand Parisian jewellery boutique. They are extremely elegant. The presentation is magnificent and the food is delicious."

However, the food journalist deplores the trend that consists of camouflaging poor-quality dishes under a trail of poor-quality balsamic syrup with a hint of caramel. This regret is shared by Bénédict Beaugié, who admits to being annoyed by the presence of flowers on so many plates: "Sometimes it feels as though you are visiting a restaurant to smell floral bouquets. It's unbearable."

 
 

A blank sheet of paper

Although there are trends when it comes to food presentation, it also demands talent and a lot of hard work.

The famous Pourcel brothers, who provided the preface for Philippe Germain's masterpiece, point out that a plate is like a blank sheet of paper. "It provides the chef with an area where he can express himself, plot his creativity, bring his ideas to life, address his desires, translate his philosophy and write a story." It is an entire programme that adheres to strict rules (see box).

Future trends

What does the future hold? Surely we have already invented everything? Eating will always be a necessity, as will the serving of dishes. The odds are pretty high that new trends will see the light of day under the guise of new methods and new technological evolutions. The so-called culinary ‘happening’ is starting to emerge. One example is the Dessance restaurant in Paris where clients are only served desserts that are arranged on the plate in front of their eyes. One interesting video shows a dessert blossoming like a flower when cream is poured around it.

One thing is certain — the plate is set to continue as a canvas for experimentation. A study seminar on the ‘artification’(3) of food and the table was even set up in 2012 by the University of Quebec in Montreal in collaboration with the INHA (National Institute of Art History) in Paris. It still lives on today.

Manuella Magnin