”Plating is an extension of a chef’s personality.” Commenting on a blossoming culinary art form is Tarun Sibal, co-founder and chef at Goa’s acclaimed culinary bar, Titlie. Here we speak with Sibal to break down the art of plating.
Cooking is a creative act of constant transformation, same as poetry. A mirror to society, showcasing our personalities and alter-egos to the world one big bite at a time. From sourcing quality produce to upgrading pantries with both local and international condiments — chefs, consumers, and the culture they represent have changed drastically over the years. And not too long ago, we entered the era of Instagrammable food that shifted food philosophies, too. The stars here weren’t influencers but focaccia garden bread, Dalgona coffee, cocktail floats, edible flowers, and outlandish desserts that looked so good you wouldn’t want to hurt its ‘like’ probability by slitting it open.
Emerging from the ongoing trend of ‘good looking’ food [courtesy of Masterchef Australia and other competitive cooking shows] is the art of plating. And to explore this gravy in the Indian context, our go-to authority lies in the grid of Tarun Sibal’s Instagram page that proves local food can be presented with equal finesse as any other exotic dish.
Content before packaging
Plating, for Sibal, is dishing out the ingredients you have cooked in an aesthetically viable manner. But, it doesn’t stop here. He tells me that plating is a chef’s responsibility, an opportunity for how they experiment with food, and that happens when you look at a plate as a blank canvas.
”Sometimes, you pick a theme and move with it. Other times, you allow your hands to improvise and do magic like an artist. The canvas also matters here since the plate doesn’t always have to be white; it can also be blue. When I’m cooking, I think of flavours, textures, and taste first. First, I prepare the dish, and then I decorate it. If a dish looks good but tastes bad — plating becomes redundant. This is why content before packaging is always my priority.”
While this sounds like a task that can only be perfected with experience, Sibal also highlights another crucial thing to know while plating: mood boards. ”My plating will be very different at a highway dhaba and a fine dining restaurant in Goa. It’s a 360-degree, holistic method that all good chefs keep in mind since it conveys your message to the consumer. You count in all the nuances that must be thought of before preparing the menu, and it is part of a chef’s muscle memory. There is also a lot of science here.” He explains this further with an instance. ”I’m doing a new menu at Titlie, which will be launched very soon. So, I keep re-inventing my own dishes. And I’m a big fan of chaat (local Indian street food). One of my old dishes is Tortilla Crisp Papri Chaat, which is essentially a Mexican Tortilla added to the chaat and served in a spherical glass jar, almost like a colourful garden inside a jar. In the new menu with a new mood board, you will have the same thing but with a different interpretation. The same chaat will be served on a pasta plate with different styling. I can plate one dish in four different ways, and they are all good. The idea is to stay true to your form and listen to your gut.”
Cooking, like poetry, is an endless cycle of borrowing, remixing, and transforming. Irrespective of a dish’s years-old legacy, cuisines have to undergo a modern makeover to suit the current climate and dining entertainment. Keeping in mind the relatability and familiarity factor, Sibal introduced his food philosophy as gourmet casual. His plates are casual yet gourmet, which means they are not as fancy as Michelin stars but the quirkiness is definitely there. Sibal says it’s intentional. ”I don’t want to move away from my consumers. I want it to be gourmet minus the pretence. This was my thought process when I started figuring out my food philosophy.” And you can see this gourmet casual style sprinkled all over his menu — whether it’s a Chickpea cake with Mango and Pineapple Salsa or the Grilled Red Snapper Togarashi Butter and Chilli Mash. Plating, as he explains, is a mix of love and art and science and joy, plus your personal take on things. It is done solely to enhance the dish and not the other way around.
Cross-pollination of cuisines and cultures
Chef-entrepreneur Tarun Sibal comes with a glazing culinary journey of almost two decades. Apart from Vagator’s Titlie, he helms the kitchens of Street Storyss in Bangalore, Cafe Staywoke in Gurugram, and consults Sidecar in New Delhi and Loft by Clock Tower in Gurugram, among others. Thanks to his varied repertoire, the variousness of plating really shows in his work.
”Irrespective of the cuisine [European or Oriental], my vibe has not changed. And this includes cross-pollination, too. I can take the same techniques as Indian cuisine and use them to plate European cuisine. For me, food has broken down the cuisine barrier. Forget countries, people are mix-matching within states, and the results are phenomenal.”
He explains, ”There is a dish served at Titlie called Butter Garlic Poached Prawns with a thick sambar puree and a fresh coconut whole sambar. To execute this, I took the prawns, one wok-style technique, and added sambar to it. It is a result of something I took from an Oriental kitchen [where I used to work once], and something from Kerala and Sri Lanka. It’s basically two or more ingredients from different locations jamming on a plate.” Plating is a contemporary cooking technique that should bring joy to consumers and be therapeutic. And nothing about it should seem forceful.
All images: Courtesy Tarun Sibal/Instagram