Austin chef Paul Qui is particular about how things look. The plates in his restaurant, Qui, are custom-made by a local potter. The aprons his servers wear were hand-sewn to his specifications. Qui commissioned the mural on the wall, which was painted by a Japanese artist he likes. And he convinced architecture firm A Parallel to build the space, even though A Parallel generally sticks to residential projects, because their work so perfectly matched his vision.
What he made sure the architects included in their blueprint: an open kitchen, so Qui can see his guests. “I like watching people eat,” he says. “Maybe that sounds weird, but I encourage my chefs to do that, too.” Based on his diners’ reactions, says Qui, he might change a dish. “How they eat a dish is very important. That will tell me what nuances in the dish should go away or don’t matter.”
Qui received this hawk eye training from working at a sushi bar. “Sushi chefs are always looking at what people are eating—and what they’re not eating,” he says. “The proof is on the plate. Most people won’t tell you what is bad even when you ask them, but you can see what they’re leaving there.”
All that watching and learning plus a pretty hefty portfolio of drawing and sculpture have made Qui a master of artfully serving food. Who better to learn some tricks from, then? Herewith, Paul Qui’s Guide to Plating:
There’s beauty in blankness. ”Negative space always enhances the plate and enhances the perspective of the food.”
Nix the stacks. ”I hate it when people make things super tall. If [the dish] needs a little height, you give it a little height, but you don’t want a tower.”
Put imperfection on a pedestal. ”I like things to look organic. When you go to EMP, for example, you have these punched little circles of kale and a cube of something and it’s all perfect. There are some plates I do appreciate that way, but generally I like the natural lines of what the product is, whether it’s a slice of fennel or a green or whatever.” Similarly, “nothing is going to be symmetrical all in a row.” This applies to composed bites, like sushi, but also to simple dishes like a steak. “Steak, for me, is all it needs to be, when it’s cooked beautifully. So just put it on a plate—but put it slightly off-center.”
The spoon is your friend. ”You get a sense of this when you work the line a lot, but there’s a certain finesse in kind of draping things with the spoon. The trick is to focus on how you’re putting it on the plate: do you use the tip of the spoon or the side?” So play around. “You’re trying to make nicer-looking piles of food, basically.”
Try ‘The Curling Iron’. For noodle dishes, “use chopsticks kind of like a curling iron”: dress the noodles in a bowl by swirling the chopsticks in their center, then transfer the noodles onto the plate that way, set them down, and gently remove the sticks. Then add more sauce and whatever garnishes you might have on top of the noodles. “It will look sexier,” says Qui.
Add a pop of color. ”Take beef bourguignon, for example. I save a little bit of the veg that goes into it (carrot, onion), blanche them separately in some stock, and then place them on the top of each bowl of beef bourguignon. The color comes from those bright vegetables that aren’t super cooked-down [like the rest of the dish].”
Photo credit: All, Bonjwing Lee