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Sometimes, while chef Keith Fuller arranges food on a plate, he imagines an outer-space landscape.
The owner of Root 174 sports a tattoo of Darth Vader and has a dog named after Jabba the Hutt, so it's in keeping with his interests.
"My plating is like Neil Armstrong meets Bob Ross," he joked, referring to the astronaut and the eccentric host of the 1980s PBS show "The Joy of Painting."
For an olive-cured mahi-mahi, Mr. Fuller stacks a filet off-center on a white plate, then drizzles it sparingly with green and red cabbage gel. On one side, he spoons couscous, and on the other he stacks baby carrots like Jenga blocks, held in place by a swipe of harissa, a spicy Tunisian condiment. It may not look like outer space, but it's a little out there.
For Pittsburgh chefs such as Mr. Fuller, color, shape, serving size, texture and even the plates define a dish. These days, how food looks is as important as how it tastes.
That's because signature plating has become part of the entertainment of dining out, another facet of seducing diners and a mode of expression for chefs.
Even if they haven't dined in each other's restaurants, chefs influence each other's plating, thanks to the ubiquity of food photos on Twitter and Instagram. And as the case is with clothes, styles fall out of fashion while others are cutting edge.
Sources of inspiration
How a chef arranges food on a plate became more important with the rise of icons such as Spanish chef Ferran Adria of the now-closed El Bulli in Catalonia, whose work was recently the subject of a museum exhibit at The Drawing Center in Manhattan.
The traveling show called "Notes on Creativity," which will be on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland from Sept. 26 to Jan. 18, 2015, is less about art and more about the chef's creative process. The exhibit also shows how chefs have shifted from a focus on technique to include the more tactile aspects of a dish.
"Over the last 10 years, dishes at restaurants all over the world were inspired by Alinea [in Chicago] or El Bulli," said David Racicot, chef-owner at Notion in East Liberty. "Food floated above the plate. Presentation was about what you could do with food, not how well you cook."
Mr. Racicot said that lately he's drawn to dishes that look simple but may require complex assembly and technique.
"Sometimes creating something that looks simple is harder than something that's incredibly complex," he said. "Now, you want to hide the work in creating a dish."
Chad Townsend, executive chef at Salt of the Earth in Garfield, says shapes, color and the use of white space help reinforce this simplicity.
"Before I went to France, I went from trying to get everything I wanted to on a plate without it looking sloppy to considering how to showcase nice things, properly cut vegetables, nicely made sauce," he said.
He realized this upon his return from nine months in Annecy, France, at La Maison de Marc Veyrat, run by the three-starred Michelin chef and a pioneer of Modernist cuisine.
"Now I think of plating as more linear."
Working for Kevin Sousa has also influenced him. The former executive chef at Salt of the Earth "helped me think more about square, round and abstract shapes," he said. "He helped me to realize that shapes are as important as flavors."
Some style influences have come from Asian cuisine, where arrangements such as verticals, mounds, blocks and woven design are as much a part of cooking as techniques. Assembling food in threes or in a triangular composition also is common.
Seasons affect plating, too, from the color of ingredients to more delicate garnishes in spring and heavier, darker ones in winter.
But texture and mouthfeel also play roles. "If it's a delicate fish, it shouldn't compete with something diced," said Mr. Racicot. "Puree is loose but carries the same flavor. It doesn't compete with the texture of the fish."
Whether it's a bowl of potatoes and black truffles with rosemary and olive oil or a filet mignon flanked by pearl onions and an iridescent red onion marmalade, Mr. Racicot's plates have an artistic femininity.
"Aesthetic and presentation mean a lot of me," he said. "It's not really something that can be studied. It's something inherent."
And as dining out has transformed from a special occasion to a pastime, "Diners have a sense of what's in style and what's not," said Mr. Townsend.
These days there are four trends that shape the presentation of a dish, wrote Josh Ozersky in his Esquire column in January, "We Need to Bring Back Cooking."
They are: lardcore, influenced by nose-to-tail pig worship; high modernist, inspired by Mr. Adria and Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago; greenmarket/locavore from Alice Waters' acolytes; and New Scandinavian, inspired by Noma in Copenhagen.
No matter the genre, dishes display plenty of white space, partly the result of techniques such as slow cooking through sous vide and making spheres or gels of liquids.
Mr. Ozersky likens it this way: "These items were either cooked or cured or grown separately, and they are put on the plate separately, and when I eat them, I eat them separately," he wrote in an article nostalgic for coq au vin and cassoulet. "That's not cooking, it's assembly."
Tools of the trade
New plating styles require gear that's less common in the kitchen of a competent home cook, such as squirt bottles to make squiggles and lines, tweezers to arrange ingredients just so, mini-spatulas, microplanes and various sized spoons to ladle sauces and smear dollops on dishes.
Plateware has also evolved to include square and rectangular dishes, slate slabs and hand-hewn pottery.
Chefs acknowledge the changing tides of style and are ready to see what comes next.
"Take a look at your plates next time you go out to dinner," said Mr. Racicot. "In five years, the style and look will be something else entirely."
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.