I thought I knew how it worked. Something colorful — like parsley or a curl of orange rind, a stalk of celery even — settled in alongside your steak, across the plate from the vegetable. For me, the garnish was an afterthought, a last-minute deal before serving. But I was wrong. Decorate a plate correctly, and garnish is an art of seduction. Before under-decorating another plate of moussaka, I set out to discover the hidden meaning behind garnishing in the new millennium.
Chef Jeff Caruso
According to Indianapolis-based Executive Chef Jeff Caruso, I’m going to need more than just your average lesson in garnish prowess; garnishing for seduction carries its own unique set of challenges and potential pitfalls. The hot date that’s coming to dinner is your opportunity to test the theories behind the power of food garnish. My first lesson: Don’t tip your hand too soon. Caruso says, “Don’t serve a heart-shaped muffin on the first date. In fact, don’t serve her anything on the first date.” Point taken: Dine out on your first date and let a professional handle the garnish, eliminating any potential for miscommunication or premature Freudian psycho-garnish-analysis. Assuming that all goes well, it will then be time for me to make dinner and expose my heartthrob to my own brand of garnish excellence. The challenge in garnish creation is twofold. Not only must your choices contain an element of social psychology, they must be visually pleasing. Every well-intentioned man has at one point or another found himself over-preparing for his lady, only to have her freak out that he took too much interest too soon. To avoid this pitfall, your first garnish presentation should be simple, to the point and show only a hint of effort. A lemon wedge isn’t going to win you any medals, but it might work this, and only this, time. The key here is to show you can handle the basics, both with cooking and garnishing. But if you do go with the citrus — a must with seafood — just quarter it, slap it on the plate and move on. This isn’t the time to carve a duck or swan or something else out of the Big Book of Professional Garnishes. No one wants to look at a mangled lemon leaking all over the cordon bleu. If you survive this, you’re ready for date No. 3. It’s the climax, the turning point, the time to take risks. Base this garnish on what you’ve gathered from the previous two dates, concentrating on preparing a more sophisticated meal. Trust a garnish to truly entice her. Consider the virtues of tender rose petals strewn haphazardly about the plate. A single edible rose or orchid, full and pouting, will also work. If the florist is fresh out, shift to dessert and try a few plump strawberries, drizzled in chocolate sauce. When the last berry’s gone and the drizzle is spooned up or licked from a stray finger, the garnish has taken you as far as it can. To give the garnish its due props, it has set the stage for your next move. Of course, if you feel the need to be more than subtle with your date, you might consider a phallic garnish. But I’m not going there. For the fourth date it’s time for the heart-shaped muffin or — if those culinary night classes have been paying off — even a soufflé. Shape it. Bake it. Serve it. A muffin does, in fact, hover on the line between garnish and side dish, but you can take that risk now. On the other hand, if all the rose petals in the White House garden couldn’t seal the Date Three deal, you can drop back to something endearing. Learn her favorite color, pick a vegetable to match, then slice it around the edge of the plate, or pile shavings just off the center of the main dish. If red’s her color, peel a tomato and roll a rose. Women love surprises, and after four dates worth of garnish, they’ll be anticipating big things. That’s when you bring out the tiramisu, ringed with whole coffee beans and a finely ground java dusting. Throughout all of your garnish endeavors, err on the side of simple elegance. Some chefs study for years before they master mint leaves coated in gold and chocolate, so take it slow. The way Caruso sees it, “You always want her thinking, ‘Wow how did he come up with that?’ instead of, ‘Wow — what is that?’” It’s an innovative art to seduction, without absurdity. In garnish-speak: Skip the parsley. Seth Kinnett resides in Muncie, Ind. In addition to gracing NUVO with his knowledge of obscure topics like garnishes, his work has appeared in Indy Men’s Magazine.