Making a Pretty Plate

Last Christmas, I was invited to stay with some friends from Germany for the holidays. Every morning we would wake up and fix breakfast. We would set the table, prepare the food, and sit down to enjoy eating together. The host, as she prepared our meals, made a point to create beautiful plates. She would put slices of meat fanned out on one half of the plate while complimenting the other half with cheeses. She set out yogurt and fruit and everything was beautifully staged for our eating pleasure. As I watched her create these culinary artistic visions, I realized it didn’t take any extra time to make a pretty plate. What a pleasure to have these edible works of art sitting in front of me as I began to nourish my body with the food my friend had prepared.

When I was in my 20s, I was a manager for a U.S. national family restaurant chain. After the food was cooked, it was put into a heated window between the kitchen and the server’s station where the final presentation “touches” were added before the plates were taken to the anxiously awaiting customers. Final touches included adding garnishes or drawing designs with chocolate syrup or wiping off excess grease or smudges on the plate. We were trained to take extra special care with how the food looked before it left the kitchen.

As the front-of-the-house service manager, it was my job to make sure plates looked pretty coming out of the kitchen. During training, I learned how a plate looked was just as important as what the food tasted like. If the food on the plate was all disheveled and strewn about, it didn’t matter if it tasted delicious. If the plate was not pretty when it was sat in front of the patron, as the patron began to eat it, invariably the food would be sent back to the kitchen because the customer perceived it as bad tasting.

At the time, I thought it was a ridiculous concept, but since it was part of my job, I trained my staff to make sure we presented pretty plates for our customer’s dining pleasure. Years later, I experienced the importance of a pretty plate first-hand and saw that it wasn’t such a ridiculous concept after all.

One Saturday morning in mid-May, my dad and young nephews were visiting from out of town and staying with me for the weekend. The boys had just awakened and we were all sitting at the kitchen table.

“What would you like for breakfast?” I asked the boys.

“Green Eggs and Ham,” my 8-year-old eldest nephew replied excitedly.

My dad and I laughed, and I said, “Okay, I’ll fix you green eggs and ham.” So I went into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and took out some eggs, ham and some broccoli slaw to mix up into an omelet. I turned on the stove to warm up my skillet and put the ingredients into a mixing bowl. I opened the cabinet door, found my food coloring and put two squirts of green into the omelet batter. Then I poured the batter into the skillet and let it cook until the omelets were done. I used my usual familiar omelet recipe for the Green Eggs and Ham Experiment, so I already knew what the omelet was going to taste like. And when I added the green food coloring to the batter, it actually didn’t look weird. It just looked green.

When I sat the food in front of the boys, they happily began to eat their omelets until their plates were clean. I, too, enjoyed the green eggs and ham – the taste of the omelet was just as I expected, and pretty soon my plate was clean, too.

The next morning, when the boys woke up and I asked them what they wanted for breakfast, the younger 5-year-old chimed in, “Red Eggs and Ham.” We laughed. Because the green eggs and ham had been such a hit the morning before, I thought to myself it wouldn’t be a big deal to make them red eggs and ham as they requested. I grabbed the ingredients and mixed up the omelet batter. Only this time, I added red food coloring. When the omelets were done, and we sat down to eat, everyone had red eggs and ham in front of them. The boys were thrilled again (I was the coolest Aunt ever). But for me and my dad, when we started to eat, something was different.

I took two bites and set down my fork. It just didn’t taste good. Even though I knew what the omelet was supposed to taste like (I had made this same recipe many, many times before), Dad and I just couldn’t finish eating red eggs and ham. The only difference between the regular, green and red omelets was the tasteless food coloring. But red eggs and ham just didn’t look right to me, and by association, it didn’t taste right either. I was amazed and in that moment I remembered my training from the restaurant. I had now experienced “ugly” food, or at least food on an “ugly plate” – and it just didn’t taste as good.

After returning from Germany, and those visually pleasing breakfasts, I discovered that I wanted to create culinary art of my own. I’ve been enjoying creating “pretty plates” whenever I cook for myself or others ever since.

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