How learning to plate food changed how I felt about cooking at home

Plating food matters. I wish I knew this as a kid, but at least I get to consider it when feeding my own. 

This was the 90s, and young me could gaze down at any plate, during any family holiday function and painfully see that the chicken wings were smeared with the yellow from the square of macaroni and cheese — that same square of macaroni and cheese that was all dusted with barbeque sauce from the chicken. Collard greens peek out from under everything, while a deviled egg with half of the yellow knocked off, maybe onto someone else’s plate, is tucked in a corner. It’s all topped with a single biscuit that is now slightly soggy because it caught contact with the collard juice. 

My parents, most of my aunts and my grandma didn’t get the memo about plating food. Collard juice shouldn’t wet biscuits, just as random deviled eggs shouldn’t be smashed against anything because presentation matters, almost as much as flavor. This is the single reason why I never finished my food. It’s why adults and older cousins would feed me last and it acts as my origin story for not caring too much for home-cooked meals

Sure, an adult — especially one who puts a full and an overall culinary experience at the bottom of their priority list — may enjoy these different dishes slopped together and stacked on top of each other, but most children don’t, and we all know one of the biggest challenges is getting children to eat. A 2011 Cornell study found that a poor presentation and lack of color could deter young people from eating. 

“The assumption that children prefer food presentations that match adult preferences appears to be unjustified. Future research and interventions that are designed to improve childhood nutrition should test for the impact of diverse presentations on actual food consumption among a variety of populations across institutional settings.”

“Sit down, I’ll make you a plate?” Is a constant phrase I heard from my mom or aunts as a child, and then a number of the women I dated throughout my life continued with this kind gesture. As I got older, I didn’t want anyone to make my plate. My go-to answers became a hard no or “I got it, I’m not sure what I want,” or “I just ate,” even though I didn’t. Sometimes these exchanges ended awkwardly with me struggling to find the language to properly explain, without sounding weird or disrespectful, that I don’t want any of my food to touch. 

The responses were normally a combination of  “Weirdo,” or “Why are you so finicky?” or “This guy is bougie!” 

Finicky maybe, and that could be attributed to trust issues, but bougie? Never–– I grew up in the trenches where the roaches were a little bigger than kittens, and spent too many nights out throwing dice on indicted blocks during war time. For the first half of my life, I exclusively ate at dumps like corner stores and sub shops where the food is fried and boxed behind nicked bulletproof glass. We don’t even know what bougie is. I just don’t like sweet potato juice splattered on my potato salad. 

And if you are making me a to-go plate, Jesus, please don’t sit the sweet potato pie on top of the turkey and stuffing. It deserves to be wrapped individually in foil, on its own. 

Then my own big-bang moment for culinary appreciation happened. I graduated from those dusty local carryouts and discovered the wonderful world of fine dining. It started with fancy dates at expensive chains like Ruth’s Chris, but quickly turned into me entering local gems like Woodberry Kitchen and Charleston in Baltimore. I would go multiple times a week and sit at the bar, alone, trying different parts of the menu. I met chefs, sauciers, craft cocktail artists, professional servers and food critics who worked as a collective, taking me from street dude to snob. From tap water to sparkling, and from Hennessy and Coke to aged wine and Moscow mules (infused with a housemade hibiscus syrup and garnished with locally-sourced mint). My limited corner store palate grew quicker than mold on organic strawberries — as I literally tried anything these different chefs and bartenders would send my way. 

It didn’t take long for me to realize that food could touch, and should touch, but it has to be intentional. You don’t stack food for the sake of loading your plate. There’s a beautiful, delicate art to it. The love and effort that goes into preparing food should be identical to the care used to place the items on the plate. Again, it is art. Edible art, but still art. 

The love and effort that goes into preparing food should be identical to the care used to place the items on the plate. Again, it is art. Edible art, but still art.

I used to love playing basketball, going to the movies to see films that I didn’t plan on seeing and hanging on my block or down the projects where we traded dreams, ambitions and war stories. But my new love was food. Before I had any platform as a local writer in Baltimore — my legendary restaurant tabs afforded me the opportunity to be invited to special nights at my favorite restaurants, multiple Christmas parties that were normally staff-only, and soft openings of new places putting their spin on the restaurant scene around town. I was so greedy that I worked my way onto a scene I had no expertise in. 

Which is why I was gutted during the pandemic. 

I missed sporting events and other social gatherings like most of my friends but having to live without restaurants was tough. Who thought I’d survive three years of my own cooking?

Luckily my wife and I experimented with all kinds of dishes while the country was on lockdown. We ate at enough fancy establishments in the past that we both fully understood the importance of plating food and could actually be considered as amateur plating experts ourselves . 

Since breakfast was my thing–– I loved to fold my omelets into triangles over beds of slightly sauteed spinach, allowing the sliced shrimp to dangle out the center of the eggs. I’d also stack all of the bacon on the center of another plate, arranging the pieces into a perfect square, and then filling the middle of that center square with fresh fruit. 

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My wife bought all kinds of fun cartoon stencils, plates and forks for our daughter, and we both took time crafting her meals in ways that got her excited about food early on. I don’t want to overstate the power of plating, as my child is as finicky as me; however, when we take our time and arrange her food correctly, she enjoys it and eats it. To this day, our child eats more than most of our friends’ children who are close to her age and we  know that plating plays a serious role. 

As she gets older, plating will become even more important–– and I highly recommend you put some time and energy into plating your own food, because your meals catch your eye before they enter your mouth. 

La Tourangelle has helped me bump my plating skills up a notch and offers seven steps that could help you plate like a chef as well.  

  • Plan ahead, prepare and organize
  • Experiment with color and texture 
  • Choose the perfect plates 
  • Experiment with layers and height 
  • Choose your plating method
  • Use the right tools for food plating 
  • Consider how to change the color of food

Perfect your plating

with one of our favorite secret-ingredient recipes


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