Art and science are often mistaken as incompatible entities. Science is pursued in a structured manner and relies on laws, proofs and theorems. Art is a purely aesthetic practice with few restrictions or definition.
Michael Allemeier has spent the last 29 years balancing the two extremes. The seasoned chef, who has served Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin and worked at top restaurants all over Western Canada, currently teaches SAIT culinary students how to design masterful dishes that excite our sense of taste, sight, touch and smell.
“Without science you don’t understand how and why something happens. Without the artist you can’t make it look good. They have to be symbiotic, ” says Allemeier.
When a diner is presented with a plate of golden brown chicharones, they instinctively know they will be crispy. They will immediately identify a limp, olive-coloured zucchini as over-cooked. In order to play to these intuitions, chefs have to understand how to preparethe meat to create crispiness when cooking and how to hold the zucchini at perfect temperature and duration so as to not denature the vegetable cellulose. The use of science is the first step in creating ingredients that can facilitate aesthetic design, as well as good taste.
Engaging multiple senses creates an increasingly powerful experience.
Allemeier often highlights this concept to his students. “The first sense you engage is your vision, the second is smell and the third is taste,” he explains. “It doesn’t matter how well the food is technically fabricated, if it’s not put on the plate correctly, if it lacks colour, texture, contrast and aroma, you’re devaluing your work.”
When creating an artistically designed plate, there are few set rules. A multitude of variables have an effect: The shapes of the ingredients, the garnishes, even the shape of the dish all play a role.
But Allemeier does provide some guidance. “There’s got to be a visual flow. If it’s awkward, chunky, flat, if there’s not a visual sensation, you’ve lost it,” he says. “If you have to look around the plate and analyze what you’re eating, you lose the sensation.”
The human eye is naturally drawn to bright colours and items which create contrast. Making a rack of lamb look appetizing is an easy task. The cleaned bones are bright white and the rack can be stood up on a plate to utilize all three dimensions. Adding multicoloured sauces, foams and oils with different textures can be used for colour contrast as well as flavour enhancement and can direct the eye to specific points on the plate.
“Thirty years ago visual presentation was rigid — you put everything into the centre. Now you’re doing more compartmentalization. The level of cooking has increased drastically and the complexity has changed,” says Allemeier when asked about the evolution of culinary design, “It’s quite common to get more than one cut on the plate and more than one cooking method. Different textures, different flavours, different garnishes, each have their own identities, which will have consequences on how you present it.”
But Allemeier goes on to issue a caveat: “Like all things you need moderation. The worst thing you can do is overload a plate. Negative space allows you to feature and emphasize your dish.”
As culinary design evolved, so did the method in which the meal was presented. Soup would be poured tableside into a bowl of garnish so the diner could see the viscosity, smell the aroma and watch the steam from the broth. Hollow “balloons” created from ingredients would encapsulate aromas or flavours to be released upon eating. Interactive delivery methods engage the senses and expand design past a static plate to encompass a complete experience and form memories.
As the skills of chefs evolve and diners’ expectations grow, design has become an end-to-end focus; selecting ingredients with contrasting colours and textures, creating complementary flavours and presenting it with flair to the customer.
Allemeier sums it up best. “The design [of a dish] should evoke some sort of emotion, a reaction, pleasure and comfort at the end of the day,” he says. “It should be unexpected.”