Michael Symon lives by one rule: Flavor first. Everything else will fall into place. It looks good, yes. But it tastes even better.
“I’ve never had a problem making food look nice. But presentation has to be the final thought, not the first,” says the chef and owner of Lola. “That’s what leads to good presentation. Food should look natural.”
Symon starts every dish by creating a balance of three components: acidity, fat and salt. These lead to good flavors. Then there’s texture and the thought of how a dish will feel in the mouth. Soft on soft is a big no-no. “The most tragic dish in the world is steak and mashed potatoes,” he says. “You cut through mushy meat into mushy potatoes and then you put this whole pile of mush in your mouth. There should be texture in the dish.”
There’s a lot of crunch in his shaved root vegetable salad — a variety of beets, radishes, carrots, cucumber and red onion — that mixes with the soft texture of feta cheese and leafy herbs such as dill and mint. Every color has a flavorful purpose that makes this dish just as eye-appealing as it is palate-pleasing.
1. The shaved root vegetable salad is reminiscent of the summer flavors found in a tomato Greek salad, one of Symon’s favorite warm-weather dishes, but with ingredients available in the spring.
2. More often than not, the eye should go to the top middle of the dish. If it’s interesting enough, diners will keep looking from other angles, Symon says.
3. To achieve a light and airy appearance, Symon dresses the mixing bowl and not the salad. This provides perfect dressing distribution: The dish doesn’t get weighed down, which allows him to build it up, showcasing the mix of color and texture.“When you finish a salad or a pasta dish, there should be nothing in the bottom of the bowl or plate,” he says.
4. The roundness of the vegetables mixed with leafy herbs and crumbled feta creates geometric differences that appeal to the eye. Symon uses a competing shape with the rectangular dish to make the veggies even more pronounced.
5. Symon uses a 9-by-12 flat plate to accentuate the length and color of the salad. “The flatness of the plate shows off the dish. There’s nothing blocking the beautiful colors,” he says. “If this was in a big bowl it would still be beautiful, but you wouldn’t be able to see the food this way.”