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By Noelle Munaretto

A plate composed by Chef Guy Rubino. Photo: Fransisca Sinn

Whenever I go out to eat at a restaurant, I always get excited when the server brings over my food. It's the moment I've been anticipating; the expected and welcomed arrival of a delicious meal that I got to pick off the menu. And when the server sets down the plate, no matter how hungry I am, there's always a something that stops me before I have the first bite. I always take a good look at my dish in front of me. Maybe I'm just a crazy foodie, one who pays too much attention to a restaurant's ambiance, or the clarity of the menu, or the length of the wine list, or the approachability of a server. But to me these things, in combination with the presentation of food, are key elements that help shape a restaurant's identity. When the food I've ordered physically makes its way out of the kitchen, I also believe that the chef is sending a part of his or herself out into the dining room for all the patrons to see. In my opinion, how a meal is plated is the best reflection of the restaurant itself as it encapsulates a chef's creation from start to finish. Plating highlights ingredients, cooking techniques, structure and form, at the same time that it evokes powerful sensory reactions like sight and smell. It is the chef's artful expression - one that you are soon going to eat - so I often find myself paying attention to the first impressions a dish makes. Of course, there's also that old saying "you eat with your eyes first". There are many times I'm sure I would have enjoyed my dinner more had I set it out on fine China, as opposed to throwing the pasta in a chipped salad bowl and eating it hunched by the TV. So when I'm looking for a really exciting dining experience I often browse through restaurant websites paying attention not just to the menu, but to the photos of food.

At many of the top restaurants in the city, plating is a huge aspect of the daily grind. Dishes are being tested, cooked, plated, re-plated, and nitpicked on an ongoing basis. But just how do chefs come up with they way they want their dishes to look? What inspires them in the kitchen and how does that translate into an edible format? Why do they decide to take plating to the next level by include interesting garnishes? These are all questions I've mulled over in the past as I sit in a restaurant, gazing at my meal. So, I decided to find out the answers to these questions and more and I spoke to two of Toronto's best chefs and one incredible ceramic designer. I asked them about dinner plating from start to finish. From the spontaneous burst of creativity, to making it work during everyday service.

The Idea

For Chef Guy Rubino of the acclaimed restaurant Rain, many of his plating ideas come first thing in the morning. He wakes up, downs a coffee and heads over to Chinatown. "Because I'm in the market everyday it usually starts from there," said Rubino. "Colours, shapes, or the weather that morning has a big impact on what sort of idea will stem from my visit." Rubino is known around the world for his complex plating designs and innovative Chinese cuisine. After partnering with his brother, Michael Rubino, and running some of the city's most famous restaurants like ZooM Café & Bar, Luce, and Rain, he'll soon be opening Ushi Oni, a sushi-sashimi-kaiseki spot, beside Rain in late October. For the time being, Rubino continues to focus his creative energy to dream up the plating at Rain. Actually getting him to describe how his ideas come to mind is like asking a child what they like most about a candy store. Rubino's musings are complex and thoughtful and he rambles on a little bit. His eyes light up when describing how thinking of one colour can snowball into an entire dish. "Seeing the colour of orange and thinking curry and then green and green curry, three different curries, and OH! I think duck, and duck all about curries, done three different ways, with three different curries, three different cuts and three different colours," gushed Rubino. Another approach Rubino takes when creating dishes is researching the historical significance behind a certain traditional Asian ingredient or dish. "At the end of the day, [my dish] is usually about a cultural story that is dated back to history. And that's the irony, because everyone looks at our food and says that it's so modern, but it often comes from a lesson in history that I've researched," said Rubino. "That combined with the visuals you encounter shopping everyday you can't help but be inspired by something."

Chef David Lee of Splendido, and the newly opened Nota Bene, also revealed to me what sparks his culinary ideas. "In terms of what inspires me, the seasonality inspires me, going to the farmer's markets, reading books and looking at colours," said Lee. "Everything inspires me and brings back a memory of my past, and normally you want to put that memory on a plate somewhere." Lee also finds that the most important part of his plating designs is always remembering that the main ingredient sets the tone for the rest of the dish. "That's where the focus is. If you're eating a squab breast then we have to figure out what the main focus on that squab breast is. It's the crispy skin that is very important, so then we focus on how to get that perfect crispy skin," he said. Many of Lee's plates are surprisingly simple. Even at Splendido, where each plate receives around eight or ten "touches" (or adjustments) before leaving the kitchen, what appears on the plate is an uncluttered balance of colour and texture. Each garnish, whether it is a spiky fish bone or soft dollop of grainy mustard, brings out the earthiness, hue and true beauty of the main ingredient.

Rubino's plates are decidedly more animated, and push the boundaries of conventional food styling at well over 50 touches a plate. Long vegetables, straight herbs and frenched squab bones add impressive height to the dishes. Sauces, as many as three or four on a plate, never come into contact with one another. One main ingredient is deconstructed and served in three applications on one plate. In fact, Rubino's three-way plating has made him famous. And, the reason behind this signature look has much less to do with aesthetics than one might think. At Rain, whenever an animal is brought into the kitchen it is brought in either whole or in very large pieces. "Because we buy in that manner it forces us, unless we want a lot of waste, to be creative in as many ways as possible," said Rubino. "That leads me to turn around and utilize the different cuts, and it's a very Asian thing to do. It's so respectful to the entire animal because you don't throw everything out." The other reason for plating like this? "I think it's lot of fun to eat that way because you get to eat the same thing but in three different ways," said Rubino, laughing. Still, coming up with an idea for the plate is half the battle. The other half is making it work.

The Execution

At Splendido it can take anywhere from two months to six months to an entire year for a plate to be perfect enough to make it onto the menu. That time is spent in the restaurant kitchen, as Lee and his sous chefs ruthlessly analyze factors that can make or break a dish. "Functionality is very important, colours are very important, texture and taste are very important and most of all you have to ask what the ingredients are bringing to the dish," said Lee. "I'll put a dish up, we'll criticize it, and then we'll try to evolve the dish from there," he added. The same process occurs at Rain. "It takes me a long time to come up with a new dish because I spend so much time on each particular one and it goes through so many judgmental and critical points that…it doesn't get on the menu until I'm really happy with it," said Rubino. Rubino also revealed that of the many ideas he has for certain dishes, only 25 per cent actually work out during the testing period. "It's such a trial and error situation," he said while shaking his head. After he has cooked and tasted all the elements he wants to include in a dish, Rubino then plates the ingredients on a plain piece of marble, or a large white plate. He then considers the shape and form of the food and what type of dish will best showcase his work. He'll sketch out a few plating designs, factor in a few measurements for the piece and then he'll go out and get a plate. But when most chefs would head over to the local kitchen supply store, Rubino has a very different approach. He takes his drawings to Toronto ceramic artist Ken Gangbar.

The Plates

Years ago, when Ken Gangbar first walked into Rain with a box of ceramic plate samples, Rubino was impressed by the quality and the approach. "Usually any samples we were getting were sent in the mail or brought by a sales rep," said Rubino. "Here was a guy who was making it all himself and bringing it over himself." For Rubino it was a match made in restaurant heaven. The two quickly began collaborating on specific pieces that would be featured at ZooM and Rain. In the past Gangbar had also made dishes for both Susur Lee's late restaurant Susur and Brad Moore's late restaurant Xaccuti. In his Liberty Village studio with his dog by his side, Gangbar spoke of the natural bond between high-end restaurateurs and artists. "There are a lot of dime a dozen things out there. Those restaurants are not dime a dozen. It's a completely different experience and they're creating operations that have a huge attention to detail. To them every little detail maters and in what I do every little detail matters too," he said. All of Gangbar's plates are shaped by hand, without using moulds. He often creates a collection of five or six pieces for a restaurant and then makes 20 to 60 of them to be used in service. But much like the testing and tasting sessions Rubino and Lee endure get the perfect dish, Gangbar also requires a lot of time and effort to make a collection of perfect plates. "The one thing about clay is that it doesn't always do what you expect it to do. Shit happens and ceramics is notorious for unexpected issues. The temperature is off, there's little specks of colour, there's little bumps, it cracks it warps stuff happens," he said. "If I'm making one… I have to make twice the number to deliver that one," Gangbar added.

Unlike many artists who scoff at the idea of having their client's input when doing commission work, Gangbar instead welcomes the opinions and ideas of whoever he chooses to work with. He understands that above all, the chef knows his or her food best. Gangbar also revealed that Rubino would bring him a list of ingredients to help him get a better understanding of what was going to be on the plate. "Form and colour and texture of food can all play a subtle roll in designing a piece," said Gangbar. He then takes into consideration the restaurant space, the décor, the table size, and the kitchen size so he can create a piece that's both beautiful and functional. After he's got this information in mind, he sketches out some options, works with Rubino's sketches, and makes some prototypes. Ultimately, Gangbar admits that it's up to him to create a piece that highlights only the food. "The stuff that I do, it complements a chef's work in a way because it's still about the food," said Gangbar, emphasizing that he's "not making dishes that are all about my dishes. Chefs can put the food on it and there is no competition between the dish and the food." Though Gangbar has taken a break from dish commissions for a while to focus on larger ceramic installations at restaurants and hotels, he emphasized that the bridge hasn't been burned. "It's not just a coincidence that I ended up making dishes," he said, smiling. "I'm practical, I'm tactile, and it's almost more like I'm inventing than designing. Food is great!"

The Advice

For those interested in making their plating stand out like the pro's at dinner parties, or family get-togethers, Lee had some suggestions on how to create amazing plates. "Make it simple and you normally should go with your gut feeling," he said. "That's the most important thing." That means not cluttering a dish with too many ingredients, focusing on the food's colours, using simple garnishes like herbs or edible flowers, and making sure there are no drips or globs of food and sauce around the plate's edges. As for Rubino, he advised the following: "Before you go off and start your dinner you should sit down and think. Maybe draw out how it's going to look or think about what plate you're going to use." Rubino also added that impressing your guests at home isn't about being a culinary whiz. "It's not so much that you have to come up with a new dish, but it's more about maybe getting a new dish and presenting the food in fun, and different ways."


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