When I was in Sweden last month, my friend Tove showed me Chef Tom Sjöstedt’s cookbook, “Äntligen helg” (Finally, the Weekend). Sjöstedt was Sweden’s cook of the year in 2008 and until last month, he was also the chef behind the workplace cafeteria at Electrolux’s headquarters in Stockholm.
What struck me most about the book was the plating. It looked a bit crazed, but somehow not messy. I liked it. I pored through the book looking not at the recipes but at the photos, examining the technique. It was not the typical plating style I’ve become used to seeing from Swedish restaurants like Frantzén or Fäviken, which are all about restraint. Dishes at the top Swedish restaurants are often composed of several canapé-like creations. Ingredients are carefully and tidily laid out with pincets. Sauces are dabbed on. Tommy Sjöstedt’s style reminded me of Michel Bras’ famous plates, but with even less evidence of control. (Actually, if you go to Tommy’s web site the plating shown there is closer aligned with that of Michel Bras and lacks the loose-handed feel of his cookbook.)
Perhaps Sjöstedt’s style in Äntligen helg was for display only. Maybe what I saw in those pages is not what you get in his restaurants. Maybe it wasn’t even him, but his stylist who made his food photo-ready. Still, I was captivated. I wanted to start playing with my food.
Defining one’s style
For my new sailboat chef assignment, I will be plating all the meals – something I have admittedly not done that much of. For other chefs, yes, and at my own dinner parties. But when I’ve cooked professionally, it has mostly been family style. The priority was taste over appearance. So for the first time, I feel pressure to define my plating style. Am I controlled? Am I a stacker, a la 1995?
Sjöstedt’s cookbook made me think of the scene in Six Degrees of Separation, when Donald Sutherland’s character explains how the Kandinsky painting he has is painted on both sides of the canvas. On one side, “wild and vivid, the other somber and geometric. We flip it around for variety.”
When Stocker Channing’s character asks her children’s second grade teacher the reason why her students’ paintings look like Matisse’s, the teacher admits that she knows when to take the artwork away.
I feel like I’m onto something – if not my own style, then some understanding of plating. With food, unlike with paint, you often don’t have the option of playing with the medium forever. At some point, the dish will get cold, melt, or wither. At some point, someone has to eat.
This morning I threw some rice and leftover sweet potato fries into an iron skillet. I seasoned this with cumin, coriander, salt and a little oil. From the freezer I took a block of frozen chili and mint salsa I made before my trip to Sweden. I chopped peanuts. Then I gave myself this assignment – to exercise chaos and control. I spooned the fried rice out in a rectangle. I had to put some back in the pan; though I planned to eat it, it was too much for the plate. I spooned the chopped peanuts on top the rice, not stressing about those that fell to the side. I put a drop of mint salsa on the plate. Nah, too controlled. So I lifted the spoon up above the plate and, feeling a little crazy, I let the drops splatter.