I’m not a cook. We’ve discussed this. I do, however, love to entertain. Because having guests to my home typically involves feeding them, I try to compensate for my lack of culinary skills with stylish presentation. A little sleight of hand never hurt anyone.
With a few hostess hacks, I can elevate the most humdrum potato salad from the grocery store deli, chicken wings from the hot counter, and a plastic tub of watermelon chunks into a sublime picnic. More on that in a minute.
Chef David Tiner, director of the Louisiana Culinary Institute, in Baton Rouge, is not surprised. “We eat with our eyes first,” he said. “Then we eat with our nose. I’m a big believer that if looks good and smells good, I’m going to like it.”
Presentation may not be everything, but it’s at least two thirds.
“As long as the food is out of the box and on your serving pieces, which will reflect your style, guests won’t care where it came from,” said Sharon Brenner, a caterer in Winter Park, Fla. “Everything tastes better in a pretty bowl, and pizza set out on a cake riser looks instantly nicer.”
Whether you are a culinary institute graduate, or you buy take out tacos from a food truck, here are 10 more ways Tiner and Brenner say that home hosts can make their food look better than it is:
1. Use platter power. Anything that comes in a to-go container will instantly look better on a platter. Pick one that’s the right size. Too small and the food is hard to serve. Too big makes guests think you don’t have enough. “When placing sliced food on a platter, don’t just dump it in a pile, set it in same position it was when you sliced it,” said Tiner. “It looks more appealing.”
2. Elevate. Height is important when presenting food. Fight the flat. Rather than serve everything at counter level, use risers and cake stands. You can even turn a Dutch oven or a cast iron skillet upside down to create a food stand or set dishes on a wooden wine crate. A tall decorative vase filled with flowers, branches or fresh lemons can also break up the landscape.
3. Use the unexpected. You don’t need silver platters and fine china to serve your fare, though use them if you like and you have them. Shop your cupboards for trays and breadboards that can double as platters. Repurpose commonplace containers. Use a piece of crockery or a galvanized bucket lined with a napkin for flatware. Brenner likes to put breadsticks, long crackers, or pretzel rods in wine glasses.
4. Compose your colors. When selecting serving dishes, make sure the colors work with the food. “No one wants to see salmon on an orange platter,” Tiner said. But it would work well on a cedar plank. Even better, set the salmon on a bed of steamed spinach, Brenner said. Though she likes to mix wood, glass and ceramic serving pieces, her go to is plain white dishes. “They’re inexpensive, go with everything, and let the food be the focal point.”
5. Layer don’t divide. If foods are meant to go together, like turkey and stuffing, or meatloaf and mashed potatoes, stack them so guests help themselves to both in one scoop.
6. Drizzle don’t drown. When a dish has gravy or sauce to go with it, use it as an accent. Artfully drizzle it over the dish; don’t drench it. Serve the rest on the side, so guests can add more.
7. Garnish with intention. Adding a garnish, like a lemon slice or an herb sprig, separates the amateur from the pro. It’s like putting the right throw pillow on the sofa. But the secret is the garnish must be an ingredient that is or could be in the dish, Tiner said. For example, don’t put a rosemary sprig by the lemon squares. Rosemary stands up well next to red meat or certain chicken dishes. And lemon squares would look nice surrounding a mound of fresh whole lemons.
8. Manage the flow. When creating a buffet line, Tiner likes to put the main dish at the end. “By putting all the side dishes up front and the star of the show at the end, your guests will likely try more items. If you put the main dish first, they may take three helpings then exit. Create stations to keep guests circulating and prevent traffic jams. At my home, I often set up a drink station and dessert table apart from the main buffet.
9. Swirl in some swag. Whether a strip of burlap or a linen tablecloth, lengths of fabric nestled and looped under and around dishes on a buffet add texture and interest.
10. Make it yours. “‘Semi-homemade’ is the term we use when you change a premade item and make it yours,” Tiner said. Take that deli dinner mentioned earlier. Maybe you add a tablespoon of mustard and fresh dill to the store-bought potato salad and put it in a pretty bowl, arrange the wings on a wooden platter on top of a bed of arugula, and toss the watermelon chunks with some fresh mint and crumbled feta cheese, and presto. When someone asks, “Did you make this?” You smile and nod.
CAPTION: Rise above — When hosting a party in your home, elevating food on risers, whether a cake stand or a wooden wine crate, will boost its appeal. Photo courtesy of Sharon Brenner.