How to plate-up a dish like a chef

Plating up tips for the home chef

A few simple tips could help increase the wow factor of your next dinner party.

When hosting a dinner party, do you slave away all day in the kitchen, only to throw the different elements onto the plate? Chefs Thomas Woods and Hayden McFarland can help you add the wow factor and fine-dining flair to your plating.

The Woodland House chefs took the reins from Jacques Reymond in January and continued the fine-dining degustation in the grand Melbourne mansion.

Their 10-course tasting menu forces them to mix up their plating styles. Here are their tips, thrifty tricks and the essentials in their toolkit.

Freestyle: Waiters add the puree to this Woodland House eel dish (with creme fraiche quinelle) at the table.
Freestyle: Waiters add the puree to this Woodland House eel dish (with creme fraiche quinelle) at the table. Photo: Eddie Jim

Low-tech toolkit

Fear not, you don't need fancy gadgets to up your presentation game. Many of Woods and McFarland's tools can be found in arts and craft shops, hardware stores and $2 shops.

DIY stencils and dessert moulds
You can cut stencils out of plastic takeaway container lids and use the lids to dust cocoa, crumbs or powders onto a plate. 

Height and textures ... An eel and duck dish at Woodland House.
Height and textures ... An eel and duck dish at Woodland House. Photo: Eddie Jim

Traditional Dariole moulds can be expensive, so hit up the plumbing section of your local hardware. The chefs say that PVC piping makes great circular moulds.

"Buy a two-metre length of pipe and hack at it with a hack saw, clean up the edges, run it through the dishwasher and it's clean and sterilised and ready to go," McFarland says.

Pastry brushes
Perfect for brushing melted chocolate onto a dessert, or making dusting garnishes stick. Be warned, cheaper brushes may moult their bristles and you don't want the strands mistaken for hair. The chefs suggest using each brush a maximum of 15 times. Although silicone brushes wash easily "they don't brush nicely" McFarland says.

Chefs Thomas Woods and Hayden McFarland.
Chefs Thomas Woods and Hayden McFarland. Photo: Eddie Jim

Dariole moulds
The metal moulds are great for shaping steamed rice or cous cous, and puddings like mousse, panna cotta and bavarois. For set desserts, Woods suggests lining the moulds with acetate (thin plastic sheeting) for easy removal once upturned.

Miniature squeeze bottles
Fill these with gels and purees and get squiggling. Assorted sizes are available from art and craft shops, think of those puff paints from primary school.

Not just for your eyebrows, these come in handy for tweaking and placing delicate garnishes. Various sizes are available, from long handled "tong-like" versions in kitchen stores to common cosmetic tweezers from the chemist.

Melon baller
Scoop out small spheres of fresh fruit and vegetables (see the compressed cucumber in the video).

Piping bags
The pair prefer to use disposable plastic piping bags, and cut off and wash a nozzle after every use. You can also make your own by making a cone out of baking paper, and snipping the point.

Siphon gun
The charged canister aerates liquids to create sweet or savoury foams. Something of an investment, Woods says it's one of his favourite tools.

Plastic pill boxes and paint boxes
The containers make great storage for fresh garnishes, so you can pick herb sprigs in advance. "It always helps when it's in an airtight container because your garnish will last. If you're having a dinner party at 6pm, you don't want to do it at 5:30pm because you're worried it will wilt or go bad," Woods says.

Now that you've got the tools, here are some techniques to try:

The chefs say the square plate has "had its day", replaced with more "relaxed, free-form plates". However it's not all bespoke crockery, with Woodland House still using plenty of plain white plates. Ultimately, you should "let the ingredients speak for themselves, rather than trying to have the plate make the dish," Woods says.

Don't forget texture

"Contrasting textures is as important as flavour and technique. It's something that's overlooked often. It's really easy to make a nice looking multilayered mousse or something like that, but to eat it, it just ends up being mousse-y."

Instead, break things up with something crunchy, such as biscuit or praline.

"If you made the same sort of thing but with different textural elements within, it's always going to be substantially more interesting to eat," McFarland says.  

Fancy flourishes to try

The smear: Want to master those artful puree smears? The chefs jokingly refer to the smear as the "flying tadpole", and describe the action as a "drop-and-pull swipe". 

The quenelle: That perfect curved (elliptical) shape of cream, ice-cream or mousse known as a quenelle or rocher, takes practice. Rather than the alternating two-spoon method, the chefs recommend using a single deep dessert-shaped spoon with sharp edges. Make sure the spoon is hot, but not wet (the chefs use a blowtorch) and the ice-cream isn't too firm. Using a repetitive scooping motion in one direction, curve the contents against the container's curved corners to help form an elegant "egg". Once smooth, the shape should slide off the warm spoon with ease. 

Flavour boost: Freeze-dried fruit and vegetable powders add a burst of flavour and interest to a dish. Swipe the surface of the plate with a wet pastry brush (either water or oil) so that the dusting sticks and shake the excess off. This method also works with cocoa or icing sugar.

Think 3D

Woods and McFarland are not fans of the "'90s stack" - ingredients in horizontal layers. Instead, they suggest using upright shards of toffee or savoury crisps to add drama and height to a plate. The pair like to build up a dish, often snugly tucking and wrapping layers such as greens or shiso leaves around a piece of protein, for example, before adding extra touches and garnishes. 

"You've really got to think in three dimensions; base, colour and substance and visual-textural interest … you need bits and pieces to lift the whole plate," McFarland says.

Steady as she goes

Simple ways to keep elements stable include slipping a small sheet of paper underneath a jug (for example a small jug of broth or dessert sauce), using puree as edible glue, or making a bed of rock salt or crushed ice to steady shellfish.

Be deliberate with colour

Purees are a great way to add vibrancy to a dish, however the paste needs to pack a visual (and flavour) punch.

"At least be obvious. If you're going to do carrot, make sure it's carroty-coloured. There's nothing worse than getting a parsley puree that's lawn-clipping brown," McFarland says.

Make sure that the flavour of the puree complements the main protein component of a dish. Here's another tip for adding colour to a monotone main.

"You can try and get away with having meat and mushrooms and whatever, but brown on brown on brown is pretty depressing. Beetroots and carrots and parsley are always good throwbacks," McFarland says.

Add a touch of theatre...

Have fun at the dinner table. Woodland House's smoked eel dish (pictured) is a geometric arrangement of eel batons, jelly and radish. The chefs allow waiters to freestyle, adding a final flourish of puree on delivery. At home, this concept can be applied by serving a sauce or broth from a separate jug, which guests pour onto their plate. This also prevents other elements from getting soggy in transit from kitchen to table.

... But don't go too over the top

"We try not to put too many elements on a plate because it over-complicates the plate. You just don't know which flavour to go to or which texture to go to next," Woods says.

While multiple components within the same flavour profile can work, "if you start putting 12-15 different elements on a plate and they've all got different flavours you end up confusing people," McFarland says.

Keep it clean 

Before serving, the pair use a cloth sprayed with a 50:50 mix of water and white vinegar to polish the plate, and to tidy up any wayward smears.

"We always spray the [hot] plates with the vinegar solution first and polish them, [before we] plate up, and if there's any mess we go back," Woods says.