Have You Noticed Your Food Is Getting Prettier?

Today’s social media-savvy chefs in Sydney and Melbourne are plating — and even devising — dishes with aesthetics top of mind.

Article by Hannah Tattersall

Chargrilled loligo squid with chorizo, olives and smoked almonds at Parlar, a Catalan restaurant in Sydney’s Potts Point. Photograph by Steven Woodburn.

The French Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne’s still-life paintings are famous for their vibrant colours and dynamic depictions of crunchy, robust fruit. “Painting from nature is not copying the object,” the artist once said. “It is realising one’s sensations.”

Food and art have always gone hand in hand, but now, more than ever, chefs are plating their dishes in a painterly way that ignites not only the sensation of taste but gets eyes on Instagram and patrons on restaurant seats. “At the moment, people eat with their eyes first,” says José Saulog, the executive chef of the Catalan restaurant Parlar in Sydney’s Potts Point, whose autumn menu is packed with red jamon, black caviar and oven-roasted tomatoes — all of which look great on social media. “My sister, whenever she hears about a new restaurant, straight away she goes to Instagram to have a look at the pictures,” he says. “You need to get that first impression right. When you put a plate in front of a customer, you need them going, ‘OK, wow, I want to taste this.’”

When Saulog began cooking professionally in 2005, he would start with flavours and think about how they could work together in a dish. A delicious plate of food that also looked good was a nice-to-have. These days he does things in reverse. “Now I do it visually first and then I trust myself and my team that we can make those things tasty,” he says. “If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. We move on.”

By starting with colour and texture, Saulog’s goal is to grab customers’ attention. “I think I can speak for every person in the world where in the morning they just scroll through a lot of stuff on their phone or at night before they go to bed — they just scroll like crazy,” he says. “If it’s not captivating, no one’s going to look at it. No one’s going to come visit you.”

One of Melbourne’s most renowned (and hard-to-get-into) restaurants, Navi, champions native Australian ingredients. It recently posted a photo on Instagram of a maitake mushroom cooked over coals and glazed in fermented persimmon and elderflower honey. It looked like a pretty flower perched on a branch, and the restaurant said it had been described by some as “too elegant to eat”.

The Maitake mushroom at renowned Victorian restaurant Navi
The Maitake mushroom at renowned Victorian restaurant Navi is cooked over coals and glazed in fermented persimmon and elderflower honey. It's finished with a chargrilled lettuce emulsion. Photograph courtesy of Restaurant Navi's Instagram.

Pont Dining Room’s chef de cuisine, Kanishka Amunugama, serves hiramasa crudo with buttermilk, beetroot vinegar and smoked salmon roe at his restaurant, housed within the InterContinental Sydney hotel. It has been designed to resemble a bird’s-eye view of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden. “The plate is very white, so we wanted to add colour to show off and get the kingfish to actually pop out of the plate,” he says. “That’s why there’s a lot of vinegar, oil, just to help the sauces to pop out. Otherwise it’s just a white sauce on a white plate.”

Back at Parlar, Saulog’s bacalao and caviar tart is perfectly round, filled with green textural herbs and shiny black caviar balls. The dish blends the creamy, salty, curvy and crunchy together. “The visual texture is a very big thing because, you know, your eyes are busy looking at height, length and spacing,” Saulog says. “It also tells your brain that if that part is crunchy, if that part is soft, if that part is a bit wet or salty or so on, you can imagine the flavours by just looking at it.” His favourite dish, however, is the lamb saddle. “It’s got a lot of textures and a lot of techniques going into it. And it’s visually stunning, as well. It keeps you busy looking at things before you even eat it.”

The bacalao and caviar tart at Sydney restaurant Parlar.
The bacalao and caviar tart at Sydney restaurant Parlar. Photograph by Steven Woodburn.

The team behind Parlar recently opened Art+ Gallery a few doors down from the restaurant to showcase Pop Art, sculpture and photography. Perhaps there’ll even be some still lifes on display — so long as people can actually look up from their phones to notice.