If people eat with their eyes first, they are eating better than ever.
The center-of-the-plate is sporting a different look these days. While the slab of protein plus two sides was once the norm, today's chefs are creating more visually appealing plate presentations of premium chicken, turkey or other meats beautifully juxtaposed with more inspired grains or vegetables.
One thing that has not changed, however, is that consumers continue to look for high quality, premium protein when dining out. Part of this trend stems from the customer's desire for chicken, turkey and pork raised without antibiotics. For example, PERDUE® HARVESTLAND® offers flavorful NO ANTIBIOTICS EVER™ chicken and turkey items raised on an all-vegetarian diet with no animal by-products.
Chicken is especially appealing because of its versatility. In addition to being presented on the plate in a single piece, it can be sliced and served fanned out over a salad, grits or almost any other food, says Jerry Lasco, chief executive and founder of Houston-based Lasco Enterprises, which operates five concepts and a total of 14 restaurants.
Sometimes Lasco chefs feature the star of the meal, the protein, showcased in a carefully built, layered entrée. “A lot of times we see everything vertically with the protein on top,” he says.”Today, more than ever, the visual is very important.” ”
Lasco says the trend is due partly to millennials, who reject the compartmentalized, TV-dinner-style that their baby boomer parents remember. Also, younger consumers enjoy taking photos of the food and posting them on social media, but they don’t do that for just any plate. “They will if it’s a beautiful piece of art,” he says.
While visual cues are important, so are consumers’ changing preferences. At Fairfax, Va.-based Great American Restaurants, which operates 12 restaurants encompassing several different concepts, the menu focuses on proteins with interesting side accompaniments. The restaurants serve antibiotic-free chicken with traditional sides such as mashed potatoes, as well as more contemporary selections like broccolini or pasta variations.
“The trend is definitely shifting, and people want lighter, healthier options,” says Chris Osborn, vice president of kitchen operations.
At one of the company's concepts, Coastal Flats, the Simply Grilled Chicken is drizzled with honey lime and plated together with such sides as cucumber, tomato and corn salad and grilled broccolini. At Ozzie’s Good Eats, Ozzie's Brick Chicken is a wood grilled boneless half chicken with lemon rosemary sauce, garlic mashed potatoes and grilled broccolini. At Sweetwater Tavern, their Roasted Half Young Chicken is rubbed with spices, smoked and slow roasted, and served with mashed potatoes and brown butter sauce.
Osborn points out that longtime customers are seeking familiar foods and younger customers want more healthful items, and both groups look for premium proteins with appealing sides to answer this demand. “It’s a balancing act,” he says. The restaurants began offering antibiotic-free chicken years ago, before it was a trend. “We were in front of that one.”
Ethnic food concepts also are redefining the center-of-the-plate. Curry Up Now serves Indian “street food” and has four locations in California. Owner Akash Kapoor says chicken accounts for more than 80 percent of protein sales. The restaurants serve antibiotic-free chicken in meals such as the bestselling Chicken Tikka Masala Burrito, which contains chicken, tikka masala, turmeric rice, chana, and onions served in a La Palma tortilla. The Thali Platter, which is served in small bowls and includes housemade pickles, pico, papadum, rice and naan, is the second best seller.
“When we first started, the founding principle of this company obviously was Indian food,” Kapoor says. “Then we also wanted to do a traditional style but not traditionally served. The way we serve it is very modern.”
Elaine Sikorski, a chef instructor at Kendall College School of Culinary Arts in Chicago, says the center-of-the-plate has changed over the years. Previously, traditional plate presentations resembled a smiley face, with the protein as the mouth and the starch and vegetable as the eyes. Today the crescent shape is more popular, Sikorski says, with the protein occupying the right side of the plate, arranged in the shape of the moon, and the other items on top of the crescent. A sauce or puree also can be positioned as additional design elements.
Over time, the center-of-the-plate also has evolved to take on a more abstract look rather than a focused one. “We saw a trend with small plates and tapas type menus, and from that development we moved to decentralizing the visual focus,” Sikorski says. Now the entrée has several visual points on which to focus. For example, some operators are serving small servings on one plate, in a grid, instead of using individual plates.
Sikorski notes that the changes reflect an artistic approach. “I don’t think any of these plating styles are invalid,” she says. “We live in pluralistic time where many points of view are valid.”