Friday, June 11, 2010

The chef's tool box: Essential instruments for restaurant quality food presentation

Posted By on Fri, Jun 11, 2010 at 8:09 AM

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Plating and elaborate food presentation does not just have to be witnessed at a gourmet restaurant. With the proper tools, even the home cook can create stunning culinary presentations. Yes, there are many different kinds on the market, but the following tools will get your plating skills well on their way to restaurant chef status. Of course, you first need to be well-equipped in terms of kitchen knives, cutting board, plates, etc.

The first tool I'm going to highly recommend as a must-have in your kitchen is the hand held blender. The hand held blender is a great kitchen aid because it can be used as an emulsifier when you're making salad dressings, and can blend your soups and sauces to perfection.

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Next, we have the silicone baking mat, also known as a "Silpat". A Silpat can be used for baking because virtually nothing sticks to it, so you can bake your cookies on it with confidence without having to grease it first with oil or butter. Best of all, it can also be used for caramel or chocolate decorations, which really makes a basic dessert look professional. When I started culinary school back in 1986, a silicone mat was so new and trendy, and it cost around $100. Some 25 years later, prices have drastically reduced and you can your hands on one of these for well under $20.

One of my absolute favorite tools in my arsenal is the microplane grater/zester. The microplane is a super sharp (yet safe), ultra-precise grater/zester that you can use in a wide variety of ways. Chocolate is easy and beautiful to grate with it; zest citrus and the result is thin, tiny, beautiful bits of flavor; grate Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese and you get the perfect dusting of cheese for your pasta. It works great for use on garlic and ginger as well. Mainly, I use my microplane in association with the Silpat to create thin Parmesan crisps (see photo).

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Another handy tool is the ring mold. Even though professional chefs now tend to use less challenging, more natural ways of plating their food than in the 90s (when these were all the rage in professional kitchens), home cooks can use the food stacking technique to bring height, creativity and that extra pizazz to their plates.

A ring mold is a small, inexpensive ring of metal (chef tip: PVC pipe cut-outs work very well too) that you put on the plate before plating and then layer the different elements of your dish into it. When all elements are stacked, remove the ring and voila, the "tower" adds height, vertical aesthetic and elegance to your plate.

For presentation, professional chefs sometimes use tiny spatulas to apply sauces across the plate -- a very trendy and attractive plating technique.

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Even having a simple pastry brush (similar to a paint brush) on hand helps to achieve colorful "brush strokes" of sauce on a plate.

A "garde manger" kit, as it is called professionally (pictured at left), comes very handy when decorating and carving fruits and vegetables. With this kit -- and some practice -- you could transform vegetables into flowers and carve a picture onto the side of a melon.

Last but not least, little squeeze bottles to artfully dispense sauces are very useful in the kitchen. They create very precise lines to give a sense of direction and dynamism to a presentation, or impart tiny dots of colorful essence that complement your dish.

Oh, yes. I'd almost forgotten to mention this item, but it is something you almost certainly have in your silverware drawer: a good old tablespoon -- the ultimate plating tool.

These items can be found anywhere from a home goods store, to Target and Walmart, and even online at Amazon.com.

Chef Gui Alinat is a regular contributor to the CL's Food section. He is also a local executive chef, blogger and food writer. You can check out his blog at www.chefgui.com and his book, The Chef's Repertoire.

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