I started preparing food (I can hardly call it cooking) when I was in junior high. My mom was back in school finishing her bachelor’s degree and I was trying to repay the countless meals she’d made me. Upon return home after a morning full of classes, she was served her lunch: a sandwich cut into triangles, a glass of milk, dyed pale blue with food coloring, and canned peaches topped with sprinkles.
I didn’t know about balancing flavors or textures, but I understood eating with your eyes, that beautiful food is more inviting. Of course, my mother didn’t actually find turquoise milk or confetti-covered fruit appetizing. The colorings and toppings I chose were superfluous, what I would later learn was called irrelevant garnish.
A decade later I took my first cooking class at The Chopping Block in Chicago. It was a fun but humbling experience. I learned how to dissect a whole chicken, make aioli, and cook mussels. The instructor, Lisa, used a conspiratorial tone, that made it seem as if we were culinary experts instead of clueless novices.
“Don’t you just hate when parsley sprigs are just thrown on the plate?” she asked, her tone implying that she hardly needed to ask. “You should only garnish with parsley if there is parsley in the dish! A garnish should create anticipation.”
I thought of her words years later watching Grant Achatz (famed chef of Chicago restaurant Alinea) on the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table. He had a syringe full of heirloom tomato puree which he was piping into a mold shaped like a strawberry, complete with tiny achene, to create a food that defied expectation. The strawberry-made-of-tomato was a trick, a deception. It created false anticipation, surprise. In another dish, he served a piece of meat atop a pillow filled with fragrant steam, which gradually release the fragrance of a phantom ingredient, present only in smell.
Expectation is a funny thing. Since discovering my wheat intolerance I’ve grown to dislike going to parties where a snack table full of off-limits delicacies taunts me. I may feel perfectly satisfied before I arrive, but as soon as I see the crunchy pretzels and gooey chocolate chip cookies, I want them. For a while I can usually distract myself with conversation, ignoring the plates of the other guests, but eventually the temptation is too much and I go home. I know the snacks on offer at these parties are no better than the foods I have at home, but as forbidden fruit, they hold fetishistic appeal. I want, not just a bite of cheese bread, but the freedom to make my own unrestricted choice.
We eat with our eyes, which may be why the world’s best Chefs spend as much time devising perfectly arranged plates as they do creating harmonious flavors. On another episode of Chef’s Table, Brazilian chef Alex Atala coats ants in gold leaf before serving them individually on pillows of coconut meringue, cleverly transforming the humble ingredient from unpalatable to exotic.
I admire the beauty of a thoughtfully plated dish, but I’m not sure what to do with the edible flowers beloved by food bloggers, which are often bitter or vegetal, added to desserts and smoothie bowls only for aesthetics.
I recently saw an entire rose bud, thorns and all plopped in a bowl of chia pudding. The image was on Instagram, a dish made for looking at, but not for consuming. I know this, and the pale pink bud is beautiful, but seeing it makes me distrust the tastiness of the fruit puddle it floats in. If I must imagine the flavors of foods out of reach, then garnishes are indeed relevant to my conjuring.