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Art to Heart: Artistry in plating techniques creates a feast for the eyes and the stomach

Kurt Gurdal works as a cheesemonger at Wally’s, a restaurant that serves wine, specialty foods and gourmet dishes on seasonal cycles. Daily Bruin columnist Lisa Aubry visited a Wally’s location and spoke to chefs and cheesemongers to learn about art in food presentation. (Colleen Le/Daily Bruin)

By Lisa Aubry

June 5, 2019 10:06 p.m.

Art, the universal language, can transcend space and time to reach a diverse audience. We hear this all the time, but do we truly feel the weight of these words? A cloud of elitism envelops the “art world,” alienating the perspectives of some while glorifying those of others. In efforts to challenge ideas that reinforce the intrinsic validity of one individual’s take on art over another’s, columnist Lisa Aubry will explore different creative spaces and outlooks on art and reconcile the fields of arts and sciences through discussions.

Plating and painting are as close in practice as they are in phonetics.

Infusing dishes with elements of color, texture and composition for aesthetic pleasure blurs the line between art and food. Food is not only stimulating for the palate, but for sight as well, said Christian Navarro, president and principal of the two Los Angeles-based Wally’s restaurants, which serve wine, specialty foods and gourmet dishes on seasonal cycles. During my visit to its Santa Monica location, and through conversations with Wally’s chefs and cheesemongers, I learned about the artistic craft of food preparation and presentation.

For Navarro, food expands beyond what is on the plate. From music to lighting, the dining atmosphere can instill comfort and ease. Such environments are necessary for intimate or amusing exchanges in which people can open up, Navarro said. In fact, he said he has experienced many pivotal moments in the presence of food because the shared sensory experience facilitates a feeling of bonding.

“All of my celebrations, all of my sadness, all of my victories, all of my losses were done at the dinner table,” he said. “You’re tasting the exact same thing I’m tasting, so now we can talk about it, ‘What does this mean for you?’”

Eating should not be a solitary experience, Navarro said, but rather an opportunity to learn new dimensions of a person by discussing their gustatory preferences. Just as in the viewing of artwork, the tasting experience is overlaid with emotional and intellectual communicative power and directed by the tone of the surrounding space.

[RELATED: Art to Heart: UCLA’s characteristic architecture looks to the past, illuminates value of learning]

Not only are the experiences between consuming food and art similar, but so are the physical arrangements. Sous-chef Alan Martínez said attention to detail – the placement of a flower petal or the tint of a dressing – is not to be underestimated in its contribution to the plate’s final look. The difference between a swipe or a smear of garnish will result in different moods and visuals for the beholder, he said.

“I place food in different directions to make your eye travel around the plate, and I will plate in uneven numbers because the eye wants threes,” Martínez said. “I like to tell the server to deliver the plate the way I had it facing me, and not the other way around so that person gets the same vision that I see.”

In one such dish Martínez conceptualized, Blue Prawns & Citrus, he grills three blue prawns on a Japanese robata grill and places them upon a bed of thinly sliced avocados and citrus. The dish is then coated in a sweet and sour pineapple Thai chili sauce and surrounded by rose petal powder. The melange of orange, green and red hues create a visually pleasing plate, while the crunchy prawns and viscous sauce complement each other for an exciting sensory experience.

Like artists, Martínez said chefs achieve signature styles across their cuisine. Personally, Martínez said he veers toward creating an “organized mess,” which pulsates with vibrant color while still hinting at purposeful placement. The stylistic methodology behind preparation and presentation therefore infuses the “what” of the food with a “why,” lending dishes emotional dimensions.

But the craftwork of food can be traced back further still to the production process –especially when it comes to artisanal cheeses. Like those sold at the Cheese Box, Wally’s cheese shop, international artisanal cheeses appear in all textures, colors and smells. In the same way a pigment’s chemical contents impact its hue and fade over time, a similar relationship transpires between the environment that shapes the cheese. An animal’s breed and diet will affect the cheese’s resulting flavor, said Joshua Younger, a manager in the cheese department.

“It’s not so much that artisanal cheese is more fancy, but that you’re going back to the way things were preindustrial, when cows were cared for, milked and grazing on fresh grass, different roots, flowers and nuts that fall to the ground,” Younger said.

[RELATED: Cheese Club bonds students over diverse experiences, backgrounds]

Cheeses also contain different levels of lactic acids, fats and flavor, he said, depending on what animal they come from – such as cow, goat and even bison. Younger mentioned a few notes to tune into during a tasting: Animal, vegetal, mineral and microbial categories are just a few factors Younger trains cheesemongers to identify. In tasting a cow’s milk alpine-cave-aged cheese, for instance, he said one would encounter grassiness (vegetal), savory (animal) and a wet-stone or earthy flavor from the cave (mineral).

A symphony of flavors can emerge when these cheese notes pair with other foods, such as roasted nuts or wine. When curating cheese-wine duos, Younger said he prefers to pair by geographical proximity. He will match a cheese from Piedmont, Italy, with a wine from the area because both the grapevines and animals would have been nourished from the similar water sources and minerals, creating a natural coherence of flavors. But then again, everyone digests flavors differently.

“At the end of the day, no one can tell you how to eat your own food,” Younger said.

Despite some loose guidelines, no wrong answers really exist in the highly subjective act of tasting and pairing cheeses. Recall the “Ratatouille” scene when the rat chef, Remy, pairs a strawberry with cheese, evoking bursts of sound and color in his imagination. As Navarro said, it is the universally pleasing experience of enjoying the flavors that forges bonds between tasters. If a single picture is worth a thousand words, imagine what just one bite entails.

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