Serving Food Stylishly at Home

What makes food look so good on television and in magazines?

Often when we cook on "The Early Show", we hire a food stylist to make everything look as pretty as it can be.

What is a food stylist? It's someone who knows the ins and outs of making dishes look good.

Marie Haycox, a top food stylist whose work has been featured in television, magazines, and cookbooks, shared some of her secret food styling tips on "The Early Show" Tuesday to help your next dinner party look like a meal at a four star restaurant.

Haycox's first and most important rule of food: people eat with their eyes. Food presentation is one of the most important aspects of the culinary industry, she said, although it is often overlooked at home.

She says, when prepping a dinner party, following the recipe is important, but the way you serve your food is just as important. Why go through all the trouble of cooking up a gourmet meal, she says, if your presentation is forgotten?

Here are some of Haycox's tips for making your dinner party presentation shine:

FOOD STYLIST SECRET 1

Plain plates let your food be the star.

Choosing Your Plates

The first rule of styling food is choosing your plate. Patterned plates are all the rage, it seems as if the more colorful the better right? Wrong says Marie. A good rule of thumb? Picture the plate you like with a plate of spaghetti and meatballs on it. Is it too busy? Is the plate the focus or is the food the focus? If you like the patterned plate, buy it as a centerpiece, or put fruit in it. But when using it to plate dishes, the plainer the dish, the more the food will stand out. If you put food on a busy plate, it might get lost in the patter. Use the plate as an accessory only.

FOOD STYLIST SECRET 2

Layer your pastas for a professional look.

Plating Pasta (spaghetti and meatballs)

Plating the perfect plate is all about layers. When plating spaghetti and meatballs, there are easy ways to make your plate look professional. First, put your cooked al dente pasta in a bowl. Then if you've cooked your meatballs in the sauce, as most recipes call for, remove the meatballs to a separate plate.

Next, take a small amount of pasta sauce, and toss it into the pasta. You only want to use enough to coat your pasta and make it pliable. Then with tongs (or you can use two forks) and take a portion of the coated pasta out of the bowl and in a circular motion, place it on the plates. You can add a few extra twists to make it look compact. That is layer one of your dish. Then add some more sauce to the top and layer three of the meatballs on top.

Always use an odd number of meatballs. It makes the plate look more interesting than adding four and making a square. An odd number of focal points creates a more interesting dish. This is now layer two of your dish.

The final layer is going to be your garnish. Parsley always makes a great garnish for spaghetti and meatballs, the green really pops against the red and brown of the recipe. Just sprinkle a fine chopped layer of parsley on top, and that contrasting color will add a nice finished look to your dish.

FOOD STYLIST SECRET 3

Individual Plating is all about portions and timing.

Individual Plating

Everyone loves a good meat and potatoes meal. And for these you will probably serve individual plates to your guests, as opposed to family style where you put out big communal plates for people to help themselves. Marie is serving meatloaf, gravy, potatoes and carrots.

First and most important tip, allow your meat to rest 15 to 20 minutes before cutting to serve. Why? It allows the juices to distribute themselves easily after cooking, which will make it easier to slice and will make it better looking. It also gives you time to heat up your dishes, or bake your rolls.

You should put all of your individual plates in front of you, so you get a sense of how to evenly distribute the food. Do each dish individually, and do it for each plate. For instance, distribute the potatoes on each plate, which helps you keep even amounts on each plate as you go along. Then you would do the vegetables in the same manner.

Now you are ready to serve your meat. When cutting an onion, you will often find that an onion is easier to chop when it is already cut into halves. The same is true with meat-you will have an easier time cutting three or four consistently sized pieces of meat if you cut the whole loaf or roast in half first. You should end each plate with the ladle or spoon of gravy. This allows you to keep each plate at similar temperatures.

Finally, it's time to deal with the garnish. For individual plates, you do not want a ton of garnish, there are already three different dishes on there. But for a plate like this you want to use kitchen scissors (the most important tool in a food sylists kit -- everyone should have a pair) to cut some mint sprigs on the top of each plate's carrot portion. Voila. Instant professional plate for serving.

Break Down Family Style Dishes into Components

Serving Family-Style Stews and Soups

All stews and chunky soups cook in layers in the pot. Marie breaks these dishes into three different components: the chunks of meats and vegetables, the yummy bits of the meat and vegetables that cook down and get mushy while cooking in the gravy, and the gravy itself. The first think you want to do is to scoop out the whole chunks into a bowl and then you can adjust the thickness and consistency of your broth. At this point you can scoop off the fat, or oil that is at the top and make the gravy thicker or thinner as needed, with either flour (for thickening) or water (for thinning).

For your serving plate, you want to start by ladling out gravy and the broken down yummy bits. That will be your bottom layer. Then put a big layer of the whole chunks down on top. You can then pour more gravy on top of the chunks. A great garnish for stew is cooked peas. They don't need to be cooked in the stew, they are fast to whip up and again provide a great color contrast for your dish. Garnishes are not always herbs, and herbs would get lost in such a heavy dish as stew.