Dining: The History of Presentation
Smoke and Salmon Chef Edward Forster, Mike A @ Hotel Lafayette
The wealthy classes in both Asia and Western Europe laud chefs who prepare and serve beautiful dishes. In the court of Louis XIV, multitiered tables are arranged with extravagant structures made of carefully decorated and luxurious food. The Court of Versailles codifies service à la française, or traditional French table service, which remains a constant in French gastronomy for centuries to come.
The Victorian age arrests the UK and much of Europe in formality while residents of the US live a lifestyle more in line with cowboys and pioneers. “Cookery” books become popular, as do kitchen gadgets produced in factories en masse. Home cooks have access to items such as peelers, graters, and mincers, changing the appearance and texture of homecooked meals for the foreseeable future.
Le Pâtissier Pittoresque is published by one of the world’s most well-regarded chefs, Frenchman Marie Antonin Carême. The book features more than a hundred illustrations of pièces montées, elaborate sculptural and architectural pastries.
Publisher Thomas Walker complains in his weekly newspaper, The Original, of the practice of using a “huge centre-piece of plate and flowers,” that keeps table
guests “hidden” from one another. He points out that tables need to be of “excessive breadth” to allow room for the exuberant table decorations.
The Ritz Hotel opens in Paris. Cesar Ritz, the Swiss owner, partners with Auguste Escoffier, the inventor of the kitchen brigade system and one of history’s most important chefs. The Ritz immediately becomes synonymous with opulence, haute cuisine, and fine dining. In 1899 the team does the same at the Carlton Hotel in London.
Advances in nutrition, preservation, and industry characterize foodways in the early 1900s. In America, the influx of immigrants brings a variety of cuisines to the more populated areas and cities.
Escoffier publishes the foundation of modern French cooking, Le Guide Culinaire.
The cocktail party makes its societal debut. “If a woman guest who had been driving all forenoon in her limousine, and was a little chilled in consequence, felt the need of a drink with an extra kick in it, she ordered a Sazarac cocktail.” (St. Paul Pioneer Press)
Prohibition closes thousands of hotels and restaurants “and [destroys] the last vestiges of fine dining in the United States.” Casual tearooms, diners, and cafeterias rise in their wake. (Fashionable Foods: Seven Decades of Food Fads, by Sylvia Lovgren; MacMillan; 1995)
Prohibition is repealed and with the war looming, cocktail parties and passed hors d’oeuvres regain popularity.
Larousse Gastronomique is published. An encyclopedic look at French cuisine, it provides insight into culinary terminology, kitchen equipment, and historically important chefs.
The Great Depression, war, and rationing temporarily put an end to fine meals and the art of presentation. Even those who can still afford to dine well don’t, out of allegiance to the war effort.
Returning GIs import a love of exotic foods and beverages, and luaus and tiki bars are mainstreamed. The industrialization of food stuffs leads to “easy” home shortcuts, such as processed “spreads” sold in jars. Housewives work to make these foods their own by making shaped finger sandwiches and party snacks.
As prosperity grows in the US and overseas, traditional French dining again takes hold and the a la carte menu returns to fine dining. Vegetables and starches are served separately, food is carried to the dining room on silver trays, and chefs regard straying from the recipes outlined in Escoffier’s cookbooks as outrageous. At home, Americans begin their love affair with grilling and eating outdoors.
The first real shift in standard food presentation in the twentieth century happens here. Vegetables and starches are served on the same plate as the main course. It is likely this trend occurred after labor costs at the 1956 Olympics required that meal service be tweaked to remain on budget. The clock is used as a guide for plating, with proteins being placed at 6 a.m., while starch, vegetables, and the required garnish are placed—respectively—at 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m. Improvisation and straying from traditional recipes remains unheard of in most instances, until the late 1960s when “radicals” begin putting sauces under the meat on a plate.
This time period can be considered the birth of modern cuisine, where rebellious young chefs begin expressing themselves creatively and taking liberties with recipes and plating styles.
Nouvelle Cuisine takes hold and portion sizes shrink tremendously. Food is served in what many consider miniature portions.
Strange food combinations are tried—and sometimes accepted—despite their poor flavor, as the creativity of the chef becomes a recognizable and important part of the dining experience. Decorative garnishing becomes extremely trendy and dishes are dressed with “roses” made from wound tomato skins and other such embellishment. Paper doilies are used excessively, both under and in between plates, as a rule.
Plates become exceptionally large, perhaps to offset the return to normal-sized portions post-Nouvelle.
The popularity of food TV means that diners and chefs alike become aware of new ideas and concepts at an accelerated speed. Food takes on new heights, with a tall single stack comprised of meat, starch, and vegetable piled in the center of the plate becoming de rigueur. Chef Emeril Lagasse, one of the TV’s first celebrity chefs, introduces and popularizes the idea of sprinkling herbs, dry seasonings, powdered sugar, or cocoa powder on the rim of every plate. Today, tall food and speckled plates can still be found on the tables of outmoded restaurants across the US.
The sprinkling of food and plate rims transitions to the heavy use of squirt bottles and the “drizzling” of sauces both on the plate and over the food. Done in the right way, squirt bottles can still be very useful plating tools today, but plates sodden with zigzags of sauce and heavily powdered (inspired by the chef whose catchphrase was “Bam”) eventually lose their appeal. Tapas—and the concept of consuming many small dishes versus a larger single course meal—become commonplace.
After nearly a decade of being synonymous with Spanish chef Ferran Adria, molecular gastronomy rises to the point of ubiquity, transforming everyday foods into fanciful, nearly unrecognizable forms, and obscure foods into center-of-plate showpieces. Foams, spherification, emulsification, and other applications are popularized through the widespread accessibility of safe, edible chemicals and specialized techniques.
Economic collapse and a move toward smaller portions means that protein is no longer at the center of the plate, and the world’s most advanced chefs are creating dishes that are more “landscaped” in appearance, where the meat or central item is not necessarily the focus of a plate’s appearance. Sauces are less likely to be squirted from a bottle, and a swiping technique that employs a tablespoon is more common. Tasting menus have piqued in the fine dining scene, but small plates and multicourse meals made of them can be found on mainstream, chain restaurant menus with increasing regularity.
Garnishing: A Feast for Your Eyes, by Francis T. Lynch (Penguin Putnam, Inc.; 1987)
Encyclopedia of Food & Culture, edited by Solomon H. Katz (Charles Scribner’s Sons; 2003)
The Cambridge World History of Food, edited by Kenneth F. Kiple (Cambridge University press; 2001)