The Culinary Institute of America teaches the "BUFF system for improving plate presentations.
Want a simple set of guidelines to use when training staff to improve plate presentations? Consider the following BUFF system that is taught and reinforced throughout the CIA curriculum, as explained by Chef PPhillips.
B is for balance
Strive for balance, using a variety of colors, flavors, shapes and textures. Koehler advises, “start with the best combination of flavors and then work toward the design end—not the other way around.”
In terms of color, Phillips recommends avoiding the “over the top, circus effect” that dark saturated colors like purples and oranges impart. Instead, use foods that are in season, for they often look the best with their natural earth tones. “Heavy dark colors make food look heavy. By the same token, all light colors on a plate will make the food look pale and anemic,” he says.
Work with flavors that complement or contrast, advises Phillips. An example: chicken served with a chicken veluote sauce. Alternately, contrast flavors by combining sweet with sour or sweet with salty.
A variety of textures and shapes—crispy paired with tender, triangles paired with circles, or hot with cold—also contributes to a sense of balance.
Another example: consider sesame–crusted mahi mahi, sautéed hot, and served with finely cut orange segments and onion sprouts. Both of those are cold and crisp and offer the tongue different textures and temperatures when compared with the hot, tender tuna. It’s a relief to the tongue and makes the food interesting.
It’s the same with texture, explains Phillips. “If you serve boiled flounder with mashed potatoes and overcooked cauliflower, it’s not interesting in color, texture or flavor. We try to make dishes interesting by using components that complement and contrast.”
U is for Unity
You need to determine a common thread that will tie together the ingredients on your dish. “Why put them together? What binds them together? What similarities or contrasts make the dish work? What can I put with the main protein item that will enhance it?
“The elements should be separate yet intertwined,” says Phillips. One component should not be a lot larger than the others or way out in left field like it doesn’t really belong.
“Through plate design, you create it, make it, eat it, think about it to see if things work well together,” he says.
Again consider the Mahi-Mahi dish. “I serve this with Yukon gold potatoes, with their naturally sweet and earthy flavor and then tie the flavors together with a sauce of star anise and orange, a very subtle sauce,” he explains.
“Asparagus with orange is a classic combination that works well together. And the orange and anise work with the potato because it has a nice earthy taste which plays off those rich flavors. The Asian inspired sauce also provides depth. Each component works together while the sauce unifies it.”
“I think that too many times we get a picture in our mind of a plate and what would make it look pretty, cool, trendy. We put it on the menu without thinking of why we chose each ingredient or what its purpose is. I think that’s the difference between what is an inspired dish and what’s just a mediocre dish.”
F is for Focal point
Ask yourself: what does the customer think he or she is primarily buying? Usually it’s the protein item. While this is changing with the increased emphasis on vegetarianism and lower fat foods, the customer still will identify a primary “center of the plate.” That item should be the central focus of the presentation, notes Phillips.
“Sometimes there’s a tendency to scatter stuff all over the rim of the plate so that the main protein is lost, and that is contrary to our method. There should be one main item your eye immediately goes to with the other components flowing from it.
“For example, if you order a steak, that should be the first thing you see placed in a prominent position on the plate.”
F is for Flow
Flow refers to the appearance of movement, of life, in plate presentation. “For instance a circle has intrinsic flow—your eye is naturally drawn around the circle. So on the plate, the focal point is the main item. Try to arrange the garnishes (vegetable/starch) in a way so the eye hits the focal point and is drawn into one of the garnishes,” Phillips suggests. Try flaring it out or curving slices along the sides to carry the eye back to the main protein.
Chefs manipulate ingredients in the way they are shaped, to bring out flow on the plate. For example, arranging asparagus in a splay, fanned out. Slicing the potato into fat crescent moons (use three of them) and laying those out next to the curved asparagus. (Offer odd numbers instead of even because they look better to the mind’s eye.)
In Phillips’ dish, the tuna is the focal point, the potatoes are laid down with the crescents pointing around to the asparagus, which in turn is curved back toward the protein—your eye travels in a circle.
“Whether serving at a slow-paced catered event or a high-volume cafe, you are still going to have to physically place the items on the plate,” says Phillips. “It doesn’t take much more time once the system is mastered.”
“I think we can do a decent job in a very fast-paced environment by following the basic fundamentals of BUFF.
“We can achieve a better presentation than we had before because the plating and garnishing doesn’t have to be fancy, even simple changes can bring the BUFF effect leaping off the plate,” says Phillips.