As a consequence of the evolutionary process, our brains are trained to find food that looks good appetising. As a cruise ship chef, the idea is to make even the simplest dish taste and look good so guests keep coming back for more. These points are easy enough to practise even while you’re on leave from work.
One of the key ways to make sure a dish tastes good is to ensure fresh, high quality ingredients. Cruise ship companies have a network of vendors located along their ports of call to ensure their stocks are always fresh. Provisions managers and store keepers request fresh produce in various stages of ripeness so cruise ship chefs can use the most ripe first while leaving the others to ripen for use over the later part of the journey. Overripe produce can be used in soups or tarts, while items like dry bread are perfect for puddings or French toast.
Pre-ground spices and spice mixes are a common household convenience. But in a chef’s kitchen, these can make the difference between decent and delicious. Freshly grinding whole spices can enhance their taste and calls for a lower quantity to be used, a luxury cruise ship chefs can use.
Salt & herbs
Seasoning well is often just a matter of using the right amount of salt and sometimes a dash of herbs. The latter can take the dish to another level altogether by adding hints of different flavours. Often salt is added in small quantities at the beginning and adjusted for taste at the end. The key is to remember that one can always add salt, but never remove it.
This is an important factor in a cruise ship kitchen. There is a constant pressure to get a large number of dishes served quickly. But it’s important to take a step back and ensure that each step of the cooking process is completed just right before moving on to the next stage. It can make the difference between a raw onion flavour and a well-blended one in a curry, chewy or crispy squid rings, medium rare or a medium well steak.
To ensure they’re on the right track to a dish well done, cruise ship chefs are constantly testing for taste. After a while, you get pretty good at estimating quantities, but you must never let your guard down. The absolute basic of a good dish is to know what it tastes like before it is served.
Presentation is an important factor in making a dish taste good. Humans have a hormone called ghrelin that makes food look more appealing and influences memories of food. It’s what makes people hungry, sometimes even when they don’t actually need food.
This is what happens when people see photographs of chocolate oozing out of a donut or barbeque ribs slathered in sauce. It makes them feel hungry. If your dish does not look delicious, even though it tastes nice, it might not be appetising.
Ensure you have your mise en place before you begin plating. Having all your components in front of you will help you better envision how all of your flavours will come together, not just in the mouth, but also what they will look like on the plate.
Most dishes, especially mains, are a well-balanced mix of the main food components – protein, carbohydrates and vegetables. Make sure you are serving a well-balanced meal without compromising taste for presentation. Do not overcrowd the plate and place moist ingredients such as sauces and purées first so they are less likely to slide around during service.
Colour & contrast
Think of your plate as a canvas and you as the artist. The first guideline is to choose the right serving dish – size, shape, colour. They need to highlight your dish. You should also look at placing the star of your dish either on the left or right of the plate, so it falls in line with the design rule of thirds.
With your mise en place, you will be able to see colours that pair well together or can be highlighted against a monotone plate. All of these can make your dish look that much more appetising.
Sauces & garnishes
These two are not just ingredients but can also add visual appeal. You can drizzle sauce over the main ingredients, use blobs as accents on the side or smear it across the base so your main rests on it. They add colour and breaths of fresh air to your plate.
Garnishes perform a similar role. Vertical food presentation is a trend in fine dining restaurants where the highlight is placed in the centre of the plate while the rest remains comparatively empty. Other trends include landscape, free form, futuristic (using metal or glass as your serving dish), organic materials like wood or stone, and even unconventional alternatives such as test tubes and jars.
Cruise ship chefs can practise these tips even with simple, everyday dishes while they are home on leave from work.