Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Bill Addison isn’t dining out at restaurants anymore, but he’s still showing us how to eat well. At home last week, he neatly plated some takeout from Syrian restaurant Kobee Factory in Van Nuys — he’s still vetting carryout restaurants for the Times — and snapped a photo for Instagram.
“I scooped out the hummus, and I did the little swirl in the center like the restaurants do, and I put an extra little glug of olive oil in there, and that gave it a little sense of occasion,” says Addison, the former national restaurant critic for Eater. “On a really pragmatic level, it just feels like a good practice for me now, to honor the food and the people who prepared it, and to create something beautiful for myself — even something as simple as taking food from the styrofoam, or cardboard and plating it up.”
During a global pandemic, a sense of occasion is still possible to find, and it might be even more valuable than before. As many diners turn to takeout and delivery to feed themselves and to support restaurants whose other revenue streams have run dry, regaining that feeling of ceremony associated with a restaurant meal might be as simple as getting out the good plates and the nice olive oil. And while there’s no evidence of food being associated with COVID-19 transmission, it is recommended that you throw away or disinfect packaged materials that come with takeout and delivery — so fresh plates are a doubly good idea.
Properly plating food is an easy way to draw care and attention to what you’re about to consume. “People underestimate how much we eat with our eyes, but it’s a huge part of how much we enjoy a meal,” says Cat Byers, a Paris-based food stylist and photographer. “Taking the time to make your food look nice, even if just for yourself, feels creative, comforting, and rewarding.”
Presentation can drastically change a customer’s perception of quality and quantity, says Christine Flynn, executive chef of Toronto counter service chain iQ Food Co. Most of iQ Food’s meals are served in boxes, which Flynn says can lower how diners perceive their value. But in her spare time, Flynn loves to plate. She gained notoriety for her satirical, plating-focused Instagram account under the pseudonym Jacques La Merde, where she meticulously plated everyday junk food, tweezer-ing Doritos and corn dogs with modernist precision.
As more of us start eating every meal at home, “you’re gonna see people playing with their food a lot more, just for something to do,” Flynn hypothesizes. “My top tips for the plate would be to vary color and texture — so if you have three cherry tomatoes, move them around the plate so your eye travels around the plate.” And a sprinkle of Cheeto dust, another of her techniques as Jacques La Merde, is never out of the question.
With a little extra attention, takeout can taste better, too. “Even if [your delivery] is from a good restaurant, it’s been sitting, it’s been in transit, it’s not as fresh,” says Suzanne Cupps, the executive chef of 232 Bleecker, a now temporarily closed Manhattan restaurant from the group that owns fast-casual chain Dig Inn. “Something I always do for myself is have some parmesan or feta or something for takeout pizza and pasta.”
Pickles from home — like some pickled breakfast radishes Cupps picked up at the NYC Green Market from Eckerton Hill Farm — can be great too. “Takeout can be really flat... so that spike of vinegar in pickle, something crunchy, that textural difference can really help.”
Just doing a little extra can help a lot, Cupps says. “We’re all in the same boat, we’re all stuck and home and maybe having to resort to a way of eating we’re not as used to. Anything you can do to make it feel like you’re not sitting on your couch eating out of a plastic bowl is going to make everybody feel like a human being.”