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What's Up Magazine

Palette to Palate the Art of Cooking

Jul 29, 2013 12:08PM ● By Cate Reynolds

By Kathi Ferguson Photography by Tim Poly

It has been said that we eat with our eyes, as well as our palate. If this is so, a beautifully composed plate will keep the diner coming back time and time again. The same holds true for a beautiful painting. The viewer is drawn to an image visually before taking a closer look to examine its detail. Painters might add interest to a portrait with a simple stroke of bold color. Chefs can enhance a flavor by introducing a hint of spice. Whether mixing paint colors to apply to the canvas or combining flavors for a dish, each of these crafts require creativity, passion, and commitment.

Much like the painter, a chef seeks a source of inspiration. Artist Georgia O’Keefe found her muse from the colors and shapes in the New Mexico landscape, Monet in the alluring gardens and fields of France. From that inspiration, a personal style develops and the final result reflects the artist’s emotion while stimulating the viewer’s senses.

Executive chef David Hayes of Bistro St. Michaels reaches back to his roots for what led him on his culinary journey. “I grew up eating home-cooked meals and kneading bread with my grandfather every morning,” he recalls. “It was old school back then, when food and family came together. Food for me not only fills the stomach but warms the soul. I feel good eating it and I feel even better cooking it.” Annapolis native chef Christopher Newark, of Red Red Wine Bar in Annapolis, was convinced fine art would be his career before he “fell into cooking,” he explains. “I used to help my mom cook when I was a kid and learned to love it. Now I aspire to create a masterpiece with each dish.”

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Finding stimulation is not the only requirement to becoming a successful artist. Approaching a painting involves much more than “meets the eye.” For example, there is the subject matter to consider, the size of the canvas, laying out the palette, and developing a strong composition—all before a single brushstroke is applied. As the painting develops, an artist must continually compare and contrast throughout the process, being mindful of the entire painting as a whole so as not to lose its continuity.

For a chef, the plate is the canvas, acting as a background for the perfect blend of food, taste, and aroma. Just as mixing accurate notes of warm and cool color on the painter’s palette is essential to an exquisite finish, combining just the right flavors is key to pleasing a culinary palate. They must be juggled and tasted until the dish is in perfect harmony. “Every bite on a plate should be different, but one must complement the other…always,” explains chef Kevin Relf of WEST Kitchen & Tavern in Annapolis. “As a culinary artist, I continually cross reference flavors— sweet, savory, subtle, strong—while thinking about what accompaniments will accentuate the main item. It is always a work in progress.”

Most painters will tell you that they have scrapped many an attempt before coming up with a piece that ends up gracing a gallery wall. Likewise, a chef ’s creation can evolve into becoming a classic in a rather unconventional way and actually find its permanent place on the menu. One of the most successful dishes at the Peacock Restaurant & Lounge at the Inn at 202 Dover in Easton was created as chef Doug Potts was flipping an oyster in a sauté pan and it landed in a pot of leek soup simmering nearby. “I fi shed the oyster out and ate it,” Potts says with a grin. “Guess what? It tasted pretty darned good!” Leek and oyster bisque had just been born, complete with a Parmesan cheese puff dusted with cayenne as a finishing touch.

Food and art are unlimited in their similarities, as well as in their possibilities. Both are pleasing to look at, can be traditional or contemporary in style, offer a variety of choices, and ultimately, they titillate our senses. We watch in awe as the plein air painter captures the fleeting light of an outdoor scene in a matter of minutes, and we can be equally intrigued observing the legendary Julia Child transforming classic ingredients into works of edible art.

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The principles of success in each genre also hold much in common. A purposely applied brushstroke, the perfect balance of light and shadow patterns, deciding where to use soft and sharp edges, selecting the right frame, and even knowing when to stop—all force the eye to move through an entire painting or across the plate with ease, more or less “sampling” along the way.

Perhaps some of the most exhilarating moments for a painter come toward the completion of a piece, as a deep crimson is laid in beside a light blue to pull out a shape or a highlight is placed in just the right spot with the edge of a palette knife. These become an artist’s signature.

The chef, in turn, elevates his or her dish in the presentation. Using assorted ingredients, the final plating can take on the form of a still life, a landscape, or even a cityscape when placed in front of the diner.

“My kitchen is my studio,” says Newark of Red Red Wine Bar. “I can visualize what my food will look like on the plate.” He likes to think outside the box but stays mindful of maintaining the feel of the menu. “I see the plate as another dimension of the dish; almost like a frame.” That becomes obvious in Newark’s cheese plates, which are creatively presented on pieces of wooden wine boxes that glisten from having been shellacked.

Banquet chef David Fitzhugh is passionate about keeping things simple yet eye-catching at Hunter’s Tavern at the Tidewater Inn in Easton. He relies on the main protein for the center of interest and builds around it using colorful sauces for contrast and perhaps a seasonal garnish for that extra “pop.” That wow factor might also appear architectural in design through the towering effect of a dessert, or an appetizer of a perfectly seared scallop balanced atop bright green asparagus spears.

The greatest joy for any artist is to share with people a memorable experience through their work. As Georgia O’Keefe once said, “I found I could say things with color and shape that I could not say any other way.” The same can be said for a chef, as food after all, is an expression of art and, undeniably, one of the greatest joys of life. Bon Appetit!

A special thanks to WEST Kitchen Tavern and Bistro St. Michaels for accommodating this photo shoot.