Here’s how to make your dishes look restaurant-worthy, even at home
With many of us cooking at home more than usual these days due to the various lockdown measures imposed around the globe, your home chef skills may be getting a serious upgrade. Still, no matter how epic your cooking may be, many of us may also be missing the stunning presentation that we’d find at our favourite restaurants – we know we are, anyway.
After all, dining out isn’t just about the food itself, is it? It’s also about the experience: the ambiance, the service, and the presentation. If you’ve been missing that aspect of F&B, help is at hand: We turned to Mark Setchfield, a professional Chef, Food Stylist, Creative Director, and Food Content Creator, for his expert tips on how to make your home meals more special.
What are your five ultimate can’t-be-missed ground rules for good food presentation?
1. Keep it simple – too many elements can make a shot look crowded and confusing.
2. Make sure your props complement each other – stay away from overpowering patterns and textures.
3. Don’t over- or under-fill a plate or bowl – keep the portions sizes realistic.
4. Keep it hot and fresh – plating and timing are key. Set out the props, then add food for a neater look.
5. Add colour – some dishes can look bland, so think about adding some fresh herbs, chopped leaves or bright chilli flakes.
Why do you think it’s important for food to not just taste good, but also to be presented beautifully?
It may sound like a cliché, but we eat with our eyes too. We’re constantly bombarded with images of delicious food, from TV and social media. Instagram has certainly upped the game in terms of how people view food, literally – which has definitely raised people’s awareness and expectations when it comes to food presentation. And this inspiration can be taken home and recreated.
How can home cooks make their dishes more beautiful, with a more professional touch?
There are so many ways to give your home-cooked meal that five-star treatment:
1. Serve a grilled steak or burger on a wooden chopping board.
2. Upcycle an old food can or tin: wash it, remove the label, line with baking parchment and stack with fries.
3. Serve a fresh salad in a ‘leaf bowl’: remove the outer leaves from an Iceberg lettuce and voila, an edible bowl.
4. Serve pasta in a huge serving dish: get creative – that plate hanging on the wall could make the perfect centrepiece!
5. Bring the griddle pan from the stove to the table – there’s nothing is more impressive than a hot, sizzling pan.
6. Take soup to the next level: add freshly grated cheese, fresh herbs, drizzle some olive oil, invest in some balsamic gel, and get creative.
7. When plating a salad, add some vegetables to the plate first then add leaves; top with more vegetables, add nuts or crumbled cheese. Now, your salad will look less flat.
8. If you’re trying to shoot the perfect burger, my tip is to have a second bun, toasted. Allow it to cool, then pick out the inside of the bun. When it’s placed on the burger, it will sit better.
9. Use some old jars to serve drinks – add lime wedges and straws to add height to the shot.
10. Use a matching plate and an upturned cereal bowl to create a cake stand – this will add height to the shot and make the cake the star of the show.
What about beyond the dish – is there anything else we can do to help set the mood or enhance the ambiance?
• In these difficult times, there’s even more reason to make the most of mealtimes, get online and arrange a Friday brunch with your family and friends.
• Online apps like House Party have made this possible: plan a time, create a guest list, and choose a theme, from food to outfits.
• Want to keep it more intimate? Free your dining table of laptops and printers, and move it to another part of your home, like the balcony or garden.
• Reuse the festive decorations; add some candles or tea lights.
• Use cutlery and crockery you’ve been stashing away for that ‘special occasion’.
• Recreate a meal from your travels: I’m sure you’ve got some spices at the back of the cupboard, you bought from a bustling market or souk?
• Remember that fish curry in Goa, or a Pad Thai in Bangkok, by designing a themed menu or placemats with some holiday snaps.
• Theme the cuisine with a playlist: it could be your favourite Italian opera, Balearic beats or those chilled vibes watching the sun set.
Some people find food styling intimidating because they think that you need special equipment. What are some basic, everyday items that could be found in anyone’s kitchen and still be used for great food presentation?
Like me, most stylists love to up-cycle props. Here are my top ten:
1. Think about a starter served in cocktail glasses or champagne flutes.
2. Slate or wooden placemats are a great way to serve fresh bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
3. Grilled fish looks great served in scrunched baking parchment on a baking sheet or tin.
4. Add some fresh flowers or leaves from the garden.
5. Place your dishes on folded tea towels or disposable napkins.
6. Mix-and-match glassware, or plastic picnic beakers are a great way to add colour.
7. Reuse some disposable wooden cutlery or chopsticks.
8. Use brown packing paper to make cones to serve chips or crisps.
9. Fold over the edges of a paper bag to serve breadsticks or crackers.
10. Place dishes on a food tray with off-cuts of fabric or gift wrapping paper; it’s a great way to add texture and colour.
What are your thoughts on people sharing recipes and photos of their food more than ever these days, with #QuarantineCooking becoming a super popular hashtag?
It makes me smile. While living in uncertain times, home cooking is a great way to save money and keep the family entertained, whilst, saving money and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. I’ve watched endless videos and stories online.
Social media a great platform to share and inspire others with your cooking tips and recipes.
We all have more food than we need stored, so reach to the back of the cupboard, fridge or freezer – I’m sure there’s a wealth of ingredients you can use in there.
Do you have any food photography/styling tips for people looking to take nicer photos of their food?
1. Plan ahead: while you’re at home, take a note of how the light enters your building.
2. As I mentioned, natural light is great for food photography. Use curtains or drapes to filter harsh sunlight.
3. Move around – you may find the best light is where you least expect it.
4. A real trend on social media is ‘flat lay’ shots. (Overhead food photography). Flatten a cardboard box, use some household paint to add colour and texture, and that makes a great portable background.
5. Experiment with your composition: test shoot some plates and cutlery; the colour and texture will look different through a lens. (I also do this to plan a shoot before the food is cooked).
6. Add light detail with a reflector – stick some aluminium foil to a board and play around with light.
7. Smartphone cameras are great for food photography; experiment with filters and effects.
8. Download a free photography app, I use Photoshop Fix to adjust and colour balance my food shots.
9. In low-light, use a friend’s phones on torch mode to add extra light – avoid flash as it makes the food look flat and blown out.
10. Take pictures outside of apps like Instagram – this will give you better quality images and more editing options.
What kinds of things have you been cooking during your own lockdown situation so far?
I have definitely been paying even more attention to what I’ve been cooking while in lockdown: I’ve been batch-cooking things like veggie chilli and soups, and freezing leftovers. Meal planning is important: sit down and plan the week, including family favourites and yes, you are allowed cheat days! If regular trips to a food store is an issue, then stock up frozen products like fish fillets and vegetables. I’ve also been using dried herbs and spices to add extra flavour to my recipes.
To see more of Mark’s work (and try more of his recipes), you can check out his website at GasMarkSix.net, find him on Instagram at @gasmarksix, or find some inspiration from his food styling work at GasMarkSix.