Great Minds Eat Alike: Rachel’s Guide to Presenting Food

Our Great Minds Eat Alike series mixes up the usual BGSK offerings with interviews and submissions by cooks and eaters whose mentality towards cooking and eating meshes with ours. Today we bring you a how-to all about food presentation from Rachel Manley, a London-based foodie, blogger, and supper club host.

Rachel’s day job is on the BBC Food website, which means she gets to talk about food all day and sometimes go to photoshoots. She also hosts supper club/pop-up restaurant in the summer (in London!) and seems to be making all of her friends’ wedding cakes too. She loves making food look good, and she blogs over at What Rachel Ate. All photos by Rachel.

–Cara & Phoebe, the Quarter-Life Cooks


Despite working for a food website all day, I’m still always thinking about food: about my next meal, and the one after that. What I really love is cooking for people, it’s not only how I show that I care, I’m also a sucker for compliments on my cooking.

Because I’m often entertaining, my thing has always been making food look really good. My boyfriend laughs at me because I always talk about ‘plating up’ dinner, rather than just spooning it onto a plate. We all know we eat with our eyes, and with a few tricks and final flourishes, you can transform a plate of food from something from ‘blah’ into something ‘wow.’

I’ve taken my experience of hosting my own secret supper/brunch club and working on various food photoshoots and distilled it into ten top tips for making your food look really good when you have people over for dinner.

1. First things first. I think it’s important to remember that most quarter-lifers won’t have lived at home for a few years and will jump at the opportunity of a home-cooked meal (wouldn’t you?) So don’t think you have to cook an elaborate four-course dinner. A traditional roast dinner or even a really good shepherd’s pie is going to make people pretty happy. I also find serving coffee after dinner (with or without biscuits) always makes dinner feel impossibly sophisticated too.

2. Set the scene. I like to lay the table with a white tablecloth – it instantly makes things look classy. I made mine using white cotton from a fabric store and hemmed it on a sewing machine. [Editors’ note: how thrifty!] Tealights, napkins and fresh flowers are all inexpensive, yet really pretty. Try cutting your flowers short and putting them into old jam jars. Remember, though, that once all the food, wine and jugs of water are on the table, there won’t be much room, so you don’t need to go overboard.

3. Setting the table. When you’re living on a budget, I wouldn’t worry about having mismatched plates and crockery (it’s all part of the charm), but if you can must up the money to buy a set, plain white plates are perfect. (I got mine for 20p each in Ikea). A white background allows the food to shine and also means that any color you do add to the table will really pop.

4. A fresh bowl works wonders. Although it means a little more washing up, I like to decant most condiments or dips into a fresh bowl or plate, I’m probably a bit obsessive really, but I do think it makes a difference and your food will instantly look smarter than if you serve straight from the plastic container.

5. Family-style. I like to serve food on big platters where possible. It gives the impression of bounty and generosity, and you can make your food look really impressive, and it’s always nice and social for people to help themselves. It also means that you don’t have to worry about serving up several portions. This serving suggestion works better for some food than others, including anything oven-baked (which can go straight from the oven to the table), and salads.

6. Use the right plates. If you’re serving family-style, you need to do it properly. I’m a big fan of using large platters or big white plates – even a chopping board will do (Jamie Oliver is my main inspiration here). Take the example below: serving a salad on a large plate instead of a in a bowl makes it look instantly impressive.

7. Be individual. Sometimes, however, individual portions just work better – especially for desserts. I like to serve mine in small glasses or pretty china cups. This is especially great for make-ahead puddings and mousses, which are already individually sized, so you don’t have to worry about plating while your guests are waiting.

8. Think vertical. If you do decide to serve individual portions, remember to warm your plates first. I thought this was impossibly middle class until I tried to serve 12 people food at once; food gets cold fast. Presentation-wise, you also want to aim for vertical height and symmetry. Take sausage and mash, maybe with some braised red cabbage: spoon them side by side on the plate and the result is nice, but kinda boring. Spoon a mound of mash into the middle of the plate, however, and wedge the sausages on top, and – hey presto! An instant restaurant-style dish. All that’s left to do is to drizzle your gravy around the edge of the plate. I would then serve the red cabbage in bowls on the table.

9. Finishing touches. I’ve picked up a few final flourishes from food stylists I’ve worked with that can really transform a plate of food. I love fresh herbs, and I really think they add flavor to your finished dishes as well a bit of color. A drizzle of good olive oil and a twist of black pepper instantly brighten food, and a dollop of yogurt on a curry adds contrast in colour and texture.

10. Preparation is key. This might be stating the obvious, but when you’re hosting a dinner party, try to make as much as you can in advance. That way, you can relax when your friends arrive instead of being chained to the oven. If you’re fortunate enough to have foodie friends, then take them up on any offers to contribute food or help out.

  • Anonymous

    So how does one warm a plate while cooking for 12 and (presumably) using his/her oven?

    • Rachel

      Hi SoRefined, I normally just put them in the bottom of the oven (usually on a rack) while the other things are cooking. If I am cooking for 12, then I’ve usually pre-cooked everything, so it’s just a case of warming things through in the oven.

  • Elena

    I am not able to arrange such a beautiful table, even if I cook good and tasty and I cook almost daily.

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