Plating Real Food

October 19, 2011

This is the tenth in a series of weekly farm reports from our own Tom Hirschfeld, complete with recipes, cooking and gardening tips, and wisdom dispensed.

Today: Part II of Tom's food photography education -- how he learned to plate real food (and the legends he learned from).

Sunday dinner table

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The good, the bad, and the ugly, really ugly.

- Tom

Early on in my food education, back in the days when I liked to cook caldrons of bad food, or a whole primal of smoked meat that could make a million tacos, and, in general, really heavy male-driven chunks of protein too big for a plate, I will always remember this idea I had of Midwestern food meets southwest France.

I will never forget the day, and neither will my wife Amy, that a big piece of all-day smoked pork roast came out of the smoker, was chunked and went into a simmering big black pot of prune stew.

The resulting yuck was not only one of the ugliest things I have ever seen -- it could have won an ugly baby contest -- but even after spitting out the first bite, the worst godawful taste lingered for hours, only to dissipate slowly well into the wee morning hours. No amount of tooth brushing, tongue scraping, or gargling was going to make the taste of a pork fat sandwich served in an ashtray (with pieces of pre-chewed Juicy Fruit gum stuck to the cigarette ash-laden sides) go away. It was like trying to kill mildew with water.

Sirloin and fall greens salad

If everything has a low I would point to this crevasse as my culinary rock bottom. Never being one to let failure stand in my way, I brushed it aside, pulled my pants up, cinched my belt a little tighter and realized I had lots to learn and, might I add, I still am learning daily.

I am pretty sure I created the great pork fiasco about six months into my culinary education, you know, just about the time you say to yourself: "School, school, I don’t need no stinking school, just get me out into the restaurant world because I know everything."

Venison Liver

So I tucked my ego where my tail should go and realized you are only as good as your last meal. I needed to make a few decisions. I quit my day job and got a line cook job at one of the better restaurants in Indianapolis. It was an old school French jobber where they still did some dishes like Steak Diane, tableside, and classics like Chateaubriand. The restaurant had been around forever and the owner/chef was an Austrian man of Brobdingnagian girth with a deep voice that rumbled like an earthquake. 

On a bad day he could make Gordon Ramsey look like a cuddly little French poodle. Chef was never wrong and when he bit, he bit hard and with purpose because he had a serious desire to make you a better chef -- and besides, if he didn’t like you, he was more likely to throw you out the back door by the belt than to waste his time teaching you. To this day I have immense respect for this chef. Even though his methods may be dated I can’t help but be thankful for the education I got from him and the entire kitchen staff at this establishment. It was a great foundation to build on.

Salmon and asparagus

One of the main things I learned was how to plate. While the plating wasn’t earth-shattering Alinea or French Laundry-style stuff, it was no less appetizing.

So it is exactly this word, appetizing, that I have carried with me through the years and, as I started to look at other chefs' plates in magazines and in their cookbooks.

I started to imitate plates I liked. You see, I had learned  that it is about proportions and portion size and once you start getting this figured out you can start to make beautiful plates of food.

Mostly I was doing whole plates for two reasons: I was becoming a chef and that is how it was done in the books I liked. You put together a whole meal, not just a pork chop, and you paired it with sides that were complementary to everything on the plate.

Pork and greens

So at the restaurant I learned to keep things tight and bring it to the center of the plate, but now in the books by the chefs I liked, I was beginning to stack things. Alfred Portale was the king of plating at the time and then came Thomas Keller. Everything I did platewise became a replica of something I had seen in The French Laundry Cookbook. I mean if you're gonna steal, steal from the best I always say.

Even so, as time passed things changed and I realized I just wasn’t this fancy or fussy. I was more casual.

foie de veau lyonnaise  Country Cooking of France  feves a la tourangelle

The day I opened Anne Willan’s book The Country Cooking of France (pictured above -- inside and out) something really hit home. It was atmosphere and branding. While I hate the word branding, because it has become meaningless, sort of like the generic pictures in a picture frame at Target -- I mean they sell an image but it seems fake, made-up and fantasy-like. Willan’s book didn’t seem fake but instead came across as heartfelt and real.

I strive for heartfelt and real.

Tom's Tips for Plating Real Food

1. Make sure the food you are preparing is going to look appetizing. If it looks appetizing, people will want to eat it, which means they will also want to make it.

2. Think about garnishes. I know some of you hate garnishes and think they are pointless. Sure they are, if they aren’t edible and don’t enhance the plate with which they are being used, but they will take bland-looking food (doesn’t mean bad), and perk it up with a little color. It is this color that will take an ordinary plate and make it spectacular.

3. Don’t shortcut the food so it looks better on the plate. People want to be able to replicate your picture, so don’t lie to them by making an false dish for a photo.

4. Have an idea of what you want, create an image for your food that you want to promote, and believe in that image. (I am actually waiting to see a real suburban home blog which I feel is real and not fantasy. I think it would be really cool.)

5. Not everything has to be on a plate. Think outside the box and consider your options. You may want to do some action-type shots, or ingredients, or on-sheet-tray-type stuff.  I still consider this plating. Remember, you are building a style.

6. Use the freshest, blemish-free ingredients you can afford or find. It will make a difference in how your plates look.

7. I do farmhouse/ranch/world food so I do lots of family-style platters. It is one of the biggest changes I made in my style of plating.

8. If you want to use a table as a setting think about it in the same way you would any dish you are plating -- the same rules apply.

9. Don’t put mountains of food on a plate (or make sure the plate is big enough to hold mountains of food). A dessert plate isn’t the best choice for a rib roast, or even a slab of rib roast. But it may be perfect for an amuse bouche of a rib roast-wrapped asparagus tip with horseradish sauce.

10. Plates with patterns rarely work in photographs. While I know and have seen it work, it is rare. (SippitySup does a great job of this.) Most of the time it is the tablecloth or some other color added in another way while the food stays on a white plate.

apple salad

Want more of Tom? See Part I of his food photography education: From Photojournalism to Farm Life


Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • BlueKaleRoad
  • Summer of Eggplant
    Summer of Eggplant
  • deanna1001
  • Kitchen Butterfly
    Kitchen Butterfly
  • the musician who cooks
    the musician who cooks
Father, husband, writer, photojournalist and not always in that order.


BlueKaleRoad October 21, 2011
Thank you, Tom, for sharing your stories and experiences in such an entertaining and educational manner. I always enjoy your column and appreciate your tips here!
Summer O. October 20, 2011
Tom - These blue Spode plates take me straight back to my childhood. They remind me of my mom. These simple plates and your story about them just dug up a really big emotion for me. How odd. Thank you for it.
Author Comment
thirschfeld October 21, 2011
Thanks, I love Spode plates and they bring back childhood memories for me too.
Kitchen B. October 23, 2011
I love the blue plates too - growing up in Nigeria, we had Churchill plates, in the same 'blue' fact I saw a set a few weeks ago which took me back to the 80s - I considered purchasing them.....purely for nostalgia's sake! And now I think I will.
deanna1001 October 20, 2011
Thanks for both the serious content here (excellent tips!) as well as the paragraph about your pork dish which made me spit out my coffee. Oh well, I needed to clean that table anyway...and the laugh was well worth it!
Author Comment
thirschfeld October 21, 2011
Thank you and I am glad I could make you laugh
Kitchen B. October 20, 2011
Gorgeous photos, meaningful me a place at your table. Please????
Author Comment
thirschfeld October 21, 2011
thanks KB and you know you always have a spot at the table
the M. October 20, 2011
Solid tips on photographing food. I've found all those suggestions to be true, although I don't typically shoot family-style platters for my blog. Last January I started a food blog while taking an extended break from working as a musician to keep the creative juices flowing. That, and the fact that cooking and eating has become a nearly full-time passion, though not yet in the money-earning sense. For now, my husband and I live in the suburbs, though we dream of having a set-up like you do.
Author Comment
thirschfeld October 21, 2011
Thanks, I hope you get to make that dream come true
Author Comment
thirschfeld October 20, 2011
wssmom October 20, 2011
If the purpose of a column is to entertain and inform, Tom, this is so spot on!! I have always enjoyed your writing, but in your most recent columns I feel as if I am really learning something new. Thanks so much!!
Author Comment
thirschfeld October 21, 2011
thanks so much wssmom, and congratulations and good luck with that beautiful recipe in the finals this week.
boulangere October 20, 2011
Beautiful Tom, your suggestions, your food, your story. You subtly drive home the point that we taste first with our eyes. Photographing my foods is my greatest struggle with posting recipes. It doesn't help that I'm usually racing the clock in one way or another. One more suggestion might be to slow down and think first before racing to the end, grabbing a camera, and crossing one's fingers. Thank you.
Author Comment
thirschfeld October 21, 2011
Well, yes, I have found myself racing to the end many a time and it usually doesn't work out so well. I sometimes as I am cooking will be thinking about plating and how I am going to photograph the food and then I will set everything up before I finish the dish.
Oui, C. October 20, 2011
Not only are you a fabulous cook, but you have such a great eye and sense of style. I find the styling and photographing of food for my blog to be my biggest challenge, especially at this time of year when I'm forced to shoot using artificial light....ugh. I love how you find interesting places to shoot, like on top of a mantle, or on a chair, and your eye for lighting is spot-on.
Author Comment
thirschfeld October 21, 2011
Thanks Oui. It is tough this time of year with the shortened daylight but I always have really liked your photos a lot. You have a style that is all yours and its great and the same goes for your plating.
Greenstuff October 20, 2011
I love Anne Willan's book as well. I think I'll spend a little time with it today...
Author Comment
thirschfeld October 21, 2011
great way to spend a part of your day
MrsWheelbarrow October 20, 2011
Tom, I hope you will think about presenting at a conference sometime. I think your photo words-of-wisdom would be even more wonderful first hand.
Author Comment
thirschfeld October 21, 2011
That is not always such a good idea. LOL
CarlaCooks October 20, 2011
It's so nice to see the Anne Willan book receive some worthy praise! Her recipe for Tarragon Chicken changed me as a cook. Even my husband remembers the first time I made it and calls it my 'spcial cooking moment'. Thanks for yet another thoughtful post!
Author Comment
thirschfeld October 20, 2011
They are just wonderful recipes and it is a beautiful book
TXExpatInBKK October 20, 2011
Thanks Tom! Your pictures make me want to taste everything in them, even if I don't know what everything is, ha!
Author Comment
thirschfeld October 20, 2011