The Chef de Cuisine at The LaLiT London, Chef Jomon Kuriakose, talks about plating Indian food and presenting traditional dishes in a new avatar to global audiences.
Indian food has long been popular with global audiences. From butter chicken and biryani to dosa and samosa, dishes from the sub-continent have captured imaginations across the world, starting centuries ago with the first trading routes and continuing today with Indian culinary artistes taking our food to international platforms.
Chef Jomon Kuriakose is one of the world’s leading voices when it comes to Indian cuisine. Although he has spent a large part of his adult life in London, studying at the London School of Business and Computing, working at reputed restaurants such as Bombay Palace and Cinnamon Kitchen, and even appearing on the BBC’s Celebrity Master Chef 2018, he has maintained a strong connect with his roots, best expressed through his culinary creations.
Currently the Chef de Cuisine at The LaLiT London, aside from adapting Indian dishes to better suit global palates, he also constantly strives to reimagine the visual identity of traditional foods. Food plating is an artform that Chef Jomon has mastered over the years and takes great pride in, something that’s evident when you take a look at his Instagram page.
I caught up with him to try and understand how Indian cuisine, famous for its curries and gravies that pair perfectly with heaps of rice, could be presented in a way that would appeal to even those who have never before been exposed to our incredible cuisine cross-section.
“Food plating is science, art, maths, all rolled into one,” declares Chef Jomon right at the outset. “The idea of food plating is to make the food look pretty. Earlier, the saying was, ‘The eyes eat the food first’, while today it’s your phone or social media that takes the food in first. So, it must look good. As simple as that sounds, there are a number of factors at play. With Indian food, for instance, butter chicken or palak gosht, there’s hardly ever an attempt at plating such dishes. But here [In London], there are many ingredients which I know would look a lot better on the plate if presented in a certain way.
“For instance, prime cuts of meat, presented on a plate with an attractive garnish and well-sliced, can look very different rather than when you chop it up and put it into a gravy. Plating a dish well is not just appealing to the eye or your social media but also gives a certain respect to each ingredient. I do this with butter chicken. I serve the chicken breast cut into even slices with a butter chicken sauce. It’s essentially the same dish from home that you mop up with your roti, all I’m doing is changing how it looks.”
Naturally, when there’s reinterpretation of traditional dishes and millennia of food culture involved, not everyone gets on board. The chef has faced questions and doubts from those who don’t take kindly to adaptations. “Many people have told me that given the traditionalism which is at the core of our food, you shouldn’t ruin the dish. But that’s not what I am doing. I am only trying to present our dishes in a different way to those who don’t really have an idea about the Indian kitchen.
“Through the dishes I serve up, I’m trying to better represent my own cuisine, food that I have grown up eating. For example, there is this dish from back home called Eriserry, which is lentils and pumpkin brewed together, with a bunch of other vegetables and coconut. But I can’t simply serve a bowl of Eriserry to guests at a fine-dining restaurant. Instead, I get a baby pumpkin, cut it into wedges and roast them. With the trimmings, I make Eriserry sauce. I then place the pumpkin steak with Eriserry sauce and serve it to my guests. It gets people talking. Pumpkin steak isn’t something you usually hear about, and it rouses their curiosity. So, that’s my vision of food plating. I’m representing my own cuisine, just in a different way, that appeals to even those who have never experienced it before.”
As inspirational as Chef Jomon’s versions of Indian dishes sound though, it’s a process that can take weeks and months before an idea actually turns up on a plate. And inspiration can come from anywhere. “I’m constantly on the lookout for new ideas. When I drop off my kids to school, I’ll swing by the market, not to buy anything but simply to shop for ideas. I go visit the butcher, the fishmonger, the vegetable seller and see if there’s anything that moves me towards a new idea. For example, red cabbage, a lot of people would associate with poriyal. But I think, why not make a red cabbage chutney instead? When served on a white plate, it’ll look very vibrant. Then with prime cuts of meat, I think of making rogan josh, but with the meat grilled separately and the sauce made separately, all served together to give you the same taste profile. I’ve done this with a number of different dishes, all things I’ve grown up eating, just presented differently.”
And while making the food look great on the plate is the ultimate objective, that doesn’t mean just about anything can be placed together for the sake of cosmetics. “You have to make sure the accompaniments go with the main item on the dish. It’s not just a matter of looks, but also flavour combinations, texture and nutrition. When I make a squid, which has a chewy and soft texture, I garnish it with crushed seaweed. So, when you eat, you get a contrast of soft and crunchy textures. Of course, with the appearance too, you have to bear certain things in mind. If you serve a white food item on a white plate, it doesn’t stand out. So, all these things have to be considered when you’re plating.”
Of course, technology and access plays a big role when it comes to food plating. But that shouldn’t discourage aspiring chefs from trying their hand at it. “When you’re at a fine-dine restaurant or 5-star hotel kitchen, there are many things available to you. All you have to do is make a call and ask for it. Naturally, for the home kitchen, the situation is very different. But you can still accomplish food plating, all you have to do is plan a bit in advance, so you have the ingredients at hand.”
Chef Jomon signs off with a bit of wisdom for those who want to present that impeccable looking plate. “There’s never an end to learning. Keep checking what others are doing, keep researching new ingredients. Social media is a great help in this regard too. After all, if you don’t learn about new techniques, ingredients or trends, how will you change or improve? There will always be something new to learn and add to your own repository. But most of all, remember, there are no hard and fast rules to food plating. You should try to recreate your own vision on the plate.”
Watch the entire masterclass with Chef Jomon video to get an exclusive look at his various plating techniques as well as handy tips on which plating tools to use.
All images courtesy Chef Jomon Kuriakose