“The last thing I think about is plating,” says Jesse Schenker, chef at The Gander and Recette, two New York City restaurants. For an Iron Chef-winning, James Beard-nominated chef — Schenker’s name has also appeared on numerous lists over the past few years, including Details magazine’s “America’s Best Young Chefs,” the Zagat’s “30 Hottest Chefs Under 30” and Forbes’ “30 Under 30” Food and Wine Industry List — Schenker’s comment is a bit odd. But he insists it doesn’t mean that plating and presentation is an afterthought; it’s just directly related to the way the meal is prepared. Because no matter how the dish looks, taste is still king.
We met Chef Schenker at The Gander in New York City’s Flatiron District, where he prepared two duck entrees for us, each requiring different ingredients and preparation and showcasing different plating techniques. The first was The Gander’s duck breast with parsnip, squash and jus; the second was Recette’s duck breast leg terrine with black currant and Swiss chard. (Both recipes can be found below.) We asked him to share some of his trade secrets about plating. It turns out even if you don’t whip up world-class cuisine, you can still serve food with a five-star appearance.
Serve the food when it’s hot. It may seem like a no-brainer, but Schenker emphasizes that spending too much time arranging the food on the plate allows it to cool. If the food isn’t hot, it tends to look rubbery and less appetizing. If it’s a salad, pour the dressing at the last possible moment. If you apply it too early, the dressing’s acidity will cause the lettuce to wilt, deteriorate and brown. “I also like to add bright, colorful touches to salads,” says Schenker, “like red and white ‘candy cane’ beets and golden cherry tomatoes.”
Make the entree the focal point. When serving, you want the meal to have more negative space. That way the entree will stand out more and appear fancier than it might be. Schenker says that it’s not vital that the food be centered on the plate, but it’s common practice for many chefs. In The Gander’s recipe, the duck breast is centered and placed on top of the other ingredients (prosciutto, parsnip chips and squash). However, in Recette’s dish, the duck breast is slightly offset and placed directly on the plate perpendicular to the terrine, giving the dish a feeling of more intentional composition. Schenker suggests using white plates to help the food stand out even more.
Less is more. “I try to stick to using under five ingredients in my dishes,” says Schenker, “because I don’t want to overcomplicate it.” If you try to use too many food elements on one plate, he suggests that the dish may look sloppy. Schenker’s Recette dish is a good example of this, with nothing more than the puree, terrine, Swiss chard and duck breast on the plate — and each is modestly portioned.
Layer what you want in one bite. “I like to layer different flavors and textures into one bite,” says Schenker. “Start with an artful smear or dollop of sauce, place the protein on top, and then top it off with fresh greens,” says when talking about his Recette dish. That way, with one cut you can get all the ingredients in one bite. When plating meats on the end, like in The Gander’s dish, Schenker uses “a stacking technique” to create height. This also showcases the “quality of the protein.” The idea is that with one cut, the eater will be able to fork portions of the duck, parsnips, squash and sauce all at once. Basically it makes what Schenker calls “the perfect bite” easier for the diner.
Put the accoutrements on the side. “For example when plating a charcuterie board, I like to place extra spices or sauces that can be dolloped in small amounts around the dish,” says Schenker. He suggests using different colorful elements — “like a grainy spicy mustard or fig jam, miniature gherkin pickles, or even sprinkling the board with dried cranberries” — to entice diners to experiment with different flavors and textures. Schenker points to his Recette dish where, for example, the puree is spread around the entree, so diners can flavor the duck with each bite in the amount that they enjoy.
The Gander’s Duck Breast, Parsnip, Squash and Jus
4 medium-sized duck breasts
2 tablespoons of thyme
2 cloves of garlic
4 bay leaves
2 tablespoons of coriander
2 tablespoons of juniper
2 cups of grape seed or canola oil
3 large parsnips, peeled
1 cup of all-purpose flour
1 small butternut squash, diced
1 1/2 cups of whole milk
1 cup of heavy cream
2 tablespoons of butter
Ground black pepper
Prosciutto (Can be made up to 10 days in advance, and will last three months in fridge.)
1. Mince thyme, coriander, juniper and garlic. Leave the bay leaves whole. Combine all ingredients in a medium-sized mixing bowl, and then coat the duck breasts with them.
2. Wrap the duck in a cheesecloth and hang to dry for a minimum of 10 days. After the 10 days, rinse off all the salt and spices. Slice prosciutto paper thin with a sharp knife, mandolin or slicer. Seal remaining in fridge for up to 30 days.
1. Thinly slice the parsnip with a mandolin, then dress with flour. Add grape seed or canola oil to a medium-sized pot to fry.
2. Bring the oil to 325°F. Gently scatter the peeled parsnips in the pot. Cook for 30 to 45 seconds until golden brown. Remove parsnip, place on a towel and then season it with salt.
Duck and Squash
1. Heat the pan to a medium-high heat. Render the duck slowly on a low heat for 25 minutes, or until crispy. Then, before cutting into it, let the duck rest. The duck should be roasted to temp.
2. Dice the squash and parsnips. Roast the squash in the sauté pan with one tablespoon of butter until it’s golden brown or tender. Season it with salt and pepper, then set aside. Add the parsnip to the pan and let it simmer in butter, milk and cream until soft. Puree in blender until it’s a creamy consistency.
3. To plate: Lay the parsnip puree at the bottom of plate. Place the duck on top. Scatter with roasted squash, duck prosciutto and parsnip chips. Season the dish with salt and pepper.
Recette’s Duck Breast, Leg Terrine, Black Currant Puree and Swiss Chard
1 whole duck, quartered
1 carton of store-bought chicken stock
1 bag of store-bought dried currants (if you cannot find currants, use raisins)
1 bunch of Swiss chard
1 medium Spanish onion, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 bunch of thyme
2 pieces of basil leaf
2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon of all-purpose flour
Salt to taste
1. Place the carrot, onion, celery, thyme, basil and stock with duck legs in a roasting pan, and cover it all with foil. Put the pan in a preheated oven, set at 325°F, for between two and three hours (or until tender). Remove the pan from the oven and let the duck completely cool in liquid. Then proceed to debone the meat.
2. Place the duck leg meat and skin in a small mixing bowl. Season it with salt and red wine vinegar. Place three tablespoons of cooking liquid in the bowl. Mix all the ingredients together well.
3. Cover the baking sheet with parchment paper, then place the mixture on top of paper and cover it with another layer of parchment paper. Use a rolling pin to create a 1-inch layer. Place the baking sheet on top of the parchment paper and refrigerate it for 4 to 6 hours (or until hardened).
4. Once hardened, remove the mixture from the pan and cut into 2 x 4-inch pieces. Dredge in all-purpose flour and then place it in a medium-sized skillet with duck fat. Crisp the terrine on both sides and then place it on resting rack.
5. Place currants in a small sauce pot and cover it with reserved duck liquid. Let it simmer for 10 to 15 minutes or until rehydrated. Then put the mixture into a blender and blend until smooth.
6. Evenly season the duck breasts on both sides, and then place them (skin side down) on a non-heated medium-sized skillet. On a low flame, render the skin slowly by removing the fat from the pan for 8 to 10 minutes. Reserve the fat.
7. In a preheated oven at 375°F, place duck in oven for four-to-six minutes or until the temperature preferred. Remove duck from pan and place on resting rack. Let duck rest for eight minutes. Slice.
8. Place duck fat in previously used skillet on high heat and add Swiss chard to sauté for one-to-two minutes.
9. To plate: place puree down first, then terrine, then Swiss chard, then sliced duck breast.