Food styling isn't all about blow torches, tweezers and food torture. A few simple tips and tricks can help you create the kind of dishes that will have people salivating at your table in no time.
Let it fall
Herbs, flowers, nuts, dressing. The key to natural, effortless food is to 'let it fall'. This is particularly true of salads or foods that have 'layers' of ingredients. Scatter over any garnishes with reckless abandon and it will look far better and far less contrived than if you sat there labouring over your salad, attempting to stage herbs and flowers. When food is loose and free, you are able to see the ingredients. Real and natural will always look better and provide a fun, vivid visual texture to your food.
Messy but not dirty
Oozing cheese, slightly melting ice cream and wayward crumbs– all things that point to the unbridled pleasure of eating. But take it too far, make it look messy and it moves it from delicious to disgusting in the blink of an eye. In narrative writing there is a common phrase – "show, don't tell" and this applies just as aptly to food. A hint or subtle suggestion of the gastronomic pleasures ahead is far more enticing than literally pulling your food apart to show that melting mozzarella or sweet fruit collapsing, hot from a pie. The key here is subtlety. The people eating at your table will discover its pleasures soon enough.
Dark chocolate, peanut butter and dulce de leche brownies. Photo: Katrina Meynink
For example, in this brownie, above, you can see the indentation in the crust, the molten centre and a few crumbs. But the slices are cleanly cut. The key is to entice, not to massacre the dish in the process. Go slowly.
You don't need to have tweezers at the ready, even the humblest of foods can look phenomenal when you think about the end result. The surface you present it on.
The plate or board or set table plays a considerable role in the styling of food. It communicates movement, dynamism, and the unbridled pleasure of eating be that a Sunday get-together with family or friends or a more special occasion style of meal. Natural wood and rustic slate for example will communicate a very different style to an individual white fine china bowl and linen napkin. Use the plates and settings to help communicate the style of your food. We eat with our eyes first. Always. Set the scene.
The ingredient is king
Try to use the freshest, most blemish-free ingredients you can afford or find. It will make a difference in how your dishes look on serving. Salad leaves that start off limp, for example, will only look more so by the time you have incorporated them in a recipe and then turned out onto a plate to serve.
Don't overload the plate. What you leave out is as important as what you put on. You need to give room to allow the ingredients to shine. Let people see each of the elements that make up the dish, like in this Roasted spiced chicken with cauliflower and fennel cream, below.
Spiced chicken with cauliflower and fennel cream. Photo: Katrina Meynink
Garnish, garnish, garnish
A smattering of herbs, or an uncut sprig helps to tell us how the dish began. Everyone loves a story, it makes for a more emotional connection with the food. They also play a spectacular role in adding freshness and vibrancy to any dish.
Spiced onion, eschallot, leek and fennel tart with goat's curd and pomegranate seeds. Photo: Katrina Meynink
On this Caramelised onion, eschallot, leek and fennel tart with goat's curd, the addition of flowers and pomegranate add movement. The freshness of the herbs and kernels contrast with the cooked elements in colour and also texture, adding depth to what could potentially look like a very flat dish.
Food that has had time to cool or a salad that has been dressed several hours before serving will never look as good. The longer your food sits on the plate the less delicious it will look. Serve food piping hot, steam will always entice, vegetables won't have had time to wilt, and salads dressed and tossed just on serving will always look fresh, crisp and far more appetising.
Sweet potato and kale bowl with quinoa, coriander tahini dressing and crispy chilli-lime chickpeas. Photo: Katrina Meynink
In this bowl, ingredients have been plated and immediately dressed for serving. It adds vibrancy, freshness and depth to the dish. Foods that have been allowed to sit, often look flat, darker in colour and far less appetising. Timing will always play a role in how your food looks at the end.
Think about Colour
Colour creates variation, and this helps lift blander one-colour heavy dishes.
A monochromatic curry sauce or bowl of lentils will always benefit from a smattering of herbs or spices. It creates texture and contrast. Just make sure the additions make sense with the flavours of the dish. There is no point covering a dhal with tarragon leaves just because it looks good. Flavour always comes first. Adding colour through garnishes also adds depth to a dish.
Garam masala roasted cauliflower in coconut and saffron curry with pomegranate and kale. Photo: Katrina Meynink
For example, in this cauliflower steak curry, the pomegranate and kale contrasts not only visually by brightening the brown/red colours of the curry. They also add to the dish on two levels. Firstly flavour, the sweet piquant burst from the pomegranate tempers the spice of the curry and smoky heat of garam masala. Secondly, they add texture both visually and in taste. Both the cauliflower and sauce are soft in texture, while the kale and pomegranate have a firmer crisp mouth feel.
Think about all the elements of food coming together to tell a story and your dishes will always be vibrant and visually appealing.