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Designing to Dine

What’s on the plate and in the kitchen.


    When you hear the words .... “restaurant” and “design” in the same sentence, do those words conjure up images of a shiny, sleek interior, cool light fixtures, an impressive wine cellar on display and maybe some retro leather banquettes?    For avid diners, the first thing noticed upon entering a restaurant is the interior and then  the crowd within the context of that design. But there are two other elements of design that play important roles in a restaurant—one that diners see right before their eyes and one that they typically don’t. There’s the design that occurs when chefs plate food, and then the design that goes into building a kitchen with the equipment and elements in the right place in order to operate at peak efficiency.

Pretty Plates    

    “Plate presentation can be kind of tricky,” says chef Shawn McClain (Spring, Green Zebra and Custom House), although this sounds like a modest understatement after a recent dinner at Spring brought forth a creamy, smoked potato soup, poured tableside into sleek and shallow white porcelain bowls dotted with squares of pork belly and avocado cream surrounding a perfectly poached farm egg.     “It’s sounds cliché, but plating really is like the saying, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’” McClain says. “When it comes to plating, there are certain traditions, but it can go overboard sometimes. There has been a big movement toward creative presentation in the past several years. At one point, there was a trend toward compartmentalized food. Some of it looked great, some of it didn’t.”    


The “didn’t” part in McClain’s opinion is when plate presentation veers too far from actually looking like edible food. “The food looks its best possible in its natural state, I think,” he says. “It’s great to use different colors and textures, but it should make sense and look natural. You know when you see food and think, what’s wrong with that?”    

    One trend that may have gone “overboard” is loading up on different garnishes and sauces by chefs. “I think back to some of the dishes I did 15 years ago and laugh at how many possible things I could put on one plate,” McClain says.     

   These days, though, he says, “if the garnish adds a complimentary flavor to the dish, then it’s okay, but if it’s just there for sheer looks,” that’s when things can stray too far from the actual food being served.     

    There’s an old saying among more contemporary chefs that you shouldn’t garnish a dish with something you can’t eat, McClain says. Pine cones, rosemary still on its inedible stem and other things like that. And the big swig of parsley? A little outdated.      Still, plate presentation is a true source of artistry for McClain and his staff at his restaurants. “We play around with all sorts of ingredients and tools,” he says. “The big thing for us lately has been sauce work.”     

    The team has been experimenting with foaming and frothing up sauces “to add a bit of height,” McClain says, something that other restaurants have tried. “We use a device to add nitrogen to the sauce to make it frothy. That’s definitely something that’s been trendy lately. Saucing in the old days was when you put it on the plate or spooned it over the protein. Now people manipulate textures of sauces to become artful, not just functional. You may see swipes and paints and swatches with a more modernistic touch instead of a clunky, ‘here’s your gravy’ sort of thing.”    

    When asked to recall a recent funky plate presentation he’s done, McClain says, “One of the more dramatic dishes we did was a sashimi dish with caviar-like balls filled with vinaigrettes and juices. What you do is add a calcium chloride to the liquid and drop that in alginate water. That seals the outside and it becomes a ball with liquid trapped inside. This has been done for years, but something we’ve just gotten hip to this past year. We made an apple ‘caviar’ out of apple puree and orange sake ‘caviar.’ The press has made fun of us for doing all that, and they’re right.”      Color, balance and composition are always factors in McClain’s dishes. Texture also makes things interesting.    

    “I think in general people have gotten simpler with presentation,” McClain says. “Our style is definitely simpler, minimalist. Some artists, you like their paintings and others you’re, like, no, that doesn’t do it for me, but you still can really appreciate the work.”
Hidden Gem    When it comes to efficient kitchen and “back of the house” design, that’s where Stuart Davis comes in. The former executive chef of Tru who helped chef Rick Tramonto to open Tramonto’s Steak and Seafood in Wheeling, Davis made a major career switch roughly a year ago. After years of long hours in the kitchen, with an impressive resume that also included chef de cuisine at the renowned Les Nomades, Davis joined Cini-Little International, a hospitality design firm. He’s now a kitchen designer, or specifically, foodservice consultant, as it’s referred to in industry terms.    

    Those endless hours in the kitchen were not for nothing. Many foodservice consultants have little or no experience in a commercial kitchen, so for Davis, being a chef first made him a kitchen design natural.    

    “Being a chef helped me know how a kitchen works and how it doesn’t work,” Davis says. “My stronger point is drawing the kitchen space. I literally start with a piece of paper and pencil and draw little circles where the dish station is, the beverage station, the storage over here, the cooking line over there. It’s like playing with shapes.”      Davis makes it seem simple, but good kitchen design is far more complicated that it sounds.    

    Foodservice consultants don’t just design the kitchen space—they also work with the restaurant or other foodservice operator, such as a hotel, corporate cafeteria or hospital, to purchase the right type and quantity of cooking equipment for that space, from ranges and ice machines to walk-in coolers and freezers. They also see the equipment selection process through installation, denoting certain specifications, such as dimension, power adapters and customized features like extra burners on a range or thicker stainless steel so it fits properly into its designated space and works with the overall kitchen operation. One can functiion like a liaison between different team players on the project, from the building architect and construction crew to the equipment manufacturer and middleman who’s supplying the equipment.    

    Amid all these complexities, though, Davis points out two key elements that he always keeps in mind: flow and cost. In terms of flow, he says, “You want to make sure no one is crossing paths or walking over each other.” Cooks should have enough room to do their work, while prep cooks should have enough prep tables and prep space to do their work.     

    “Sometimes the operator wants to fill every nook and cranny with equipment, but that leaves less space for the kitchen staff to work,” Davis says.  One particular flaw he’s seen is the dish drop-off area being a little too close for comfort to the main food pick-up area. “I’m sure it’s still technically sanitary, but you still have clean food and soiled food in the same six foot space.” On top of that, the same small space gets chocked up with so many people going in and out of it, he adds. “If you can avoid crossings like these, it’s for the better.”    

    But enough space isn’t so easy to come about. Kitchen designers are challenged when they’re contacted after the architect has already made decisions about the allotted space for foodservice in a larger building, such as a corporation, hospital or university. In the case of restaurants, there just isn’t a lot of space to begin with, especially in a city like Chicago where there are so many older, pre-existing buildings.   

    “You have to really work with the architect and be assertive to get the space you require for the kitchen,” Davis says.     The other rule of thumb behind design is helping the client prioritize to keep costs down, “especially in this economy,” Davis says. “There’s always a wish list, and then I talk with the client and see what I can get in the space I have.” If getting more space doesn’t work, then it becomes about whittling down that wish list to what is absolutely needed for a successful operation.    

    “You don’t want to put the Ferrari of stoves in a kitchen if it’s not absolutely essential,” he says. “Or maybe the client really only needs one walk-in cooler instead of two. It may be more economically efficient to get deliveries three times a week rather than every day if you have the room to store it.”     

    These are the decisions Davis makes. But as a former executive chef needing to cost out all the food on a daily basis to keep profits stable, he’s done this before. o   

Published: February 08, 2009
Issue: February 2009 Design Issue