A Feast for the Eyes

by Gabrielle Balzell

Local fare (almost) too beautiful to eat…

Whether canvas, paper or plate, each can inspire in its own right. Because when it comes to art, creativity knows no bounds… not even in the kitchen. “I couldn’t draw a picture on a piece of paper if I had to,” declares Dustin Allen, former executive chef for Magnolia’s on Prospect and co-owner of the soon-to-open EDGE restaurant in Junction City. “But give me a plate, and I’m very comfortable in that setting. It’s another form of art… a creative outlet.”

Like any other artist, a true chef can manipulate his medium into just about any creation one’s mind can conceive—from literal representations, such as a soft, crimson rose carved out of a crisp apple, to abstract designs that play on color and texture. And just as a watercolor can convey its painter’s rapture or sorrow, each of Allen’s palatable works is intended to speak to his patrons. “You can show emotion through your food,” he explains. “If you’ve got a little feisty side to you that day, chances are you’re going to come out with something a little spicier, [with] a little kick to it, edgier... For me, it’s really, truly an art—a communication.”

“A plate is sort of like an empty canvas,” says Travis Mohlenbrink, owner of Salt restaurant and Cracked Pepper Catering and Bakery. “These guys are so talented nowadays with food... It’s amazing some of the things they come up with… Presentation has come a long way in the last 10 years, and I just think that the simplest thing now can look so elegant.”

Raising the Bar
While Mohlenbrink and Allen credit the inspiration behind many of their meals-turned-masterpieces to their extensive traveling experiences, both chefs agree the coverage of food in the media, especially with the likes of the Food Network and Cooking Channel, has upped the ante when it comes to presentation.

“[Guests] expect what they see on TV,” Mohlenbrink explains. “When you go out to eat now, you’re expecting to have those plates and that type of food. I think those channels have really changed the way people think about food.”

“Social media has also raised expectations,” say Par-A-Dice Hotel Banquet Chef Tom Hoffstatter and Sous Chef Jonathan Scrivner, remarking that guests’ tweeting, posting and pinning have increased pressure—and inspired the imagination—in the catering industry as well. “If someone sees an eye-catching display, they can snap a picture on their phone and post it to Facebook, giving us instant publicity to hundreds of eyes… That also keeps the consequence of complacency high since negative PR… can spread just as fast. Other popular websites, such as Pinterest, are becoming a destination for people seeking ideas to plan their own events… This [is] raising the bar for expectations of how to provide the ‘wow factor’ to our guests.”

“You know you’re doing something well when they are taking pictures,” Allen adds. “You know you’ve struck a chord with them.”

The Wow Factor
One order that resonates especially well with his customers, Allen says, is the “Tomahawk Rib Eye.” While the taste of this Magnolia’s favorite—set to return to EDGE’s menu—is comparable to any quality rib eye, its sheer size, with the bone hanging off the plate, always turns heads. “It caught people’s attention,” Allen asserts of the steak, which takes center stage on a clean, white plate with few garnishments. “We knew if we could get one of those into one seat of the restaurant… it was almost guaranteed that four other tables within eyesight would [also] have it.”

Constantly dreaming up dishes that “pop,” Allen says his artistic process often begins with “waking up in the middle of the night with a notebook next to your bed.” “When we design a dish, we’re looking at the colors, the textures,” he explains. “For us, presentation is: Do we have something soft? Do we have something crunchy? Do we have a sauce that flows? Or do we have something substantial to set that off? Everything’s got to come together.” From painting the plate with a vibrant, green tomatillo sauce to sculpting the main course into a tasty tower of corn salsa and scallops, Allen and his team are constantly experimenting and putting their own spin on classic cuisine to turn a well-made meal into edible art.

Similarly, Mohlenbrink’s unique twists on world-renowned dishes often leave diners doing a double take. Salt’s foie gras s’mores—the traditional French delicacy served on a graham cracker with chocolate, crème anglaise and toasted marshmallow fluff—is one “small bite” that’s almost too interesting to eat, while Cracked Pepper’s catering menu features eye-catching hors d’oeuvres like caprese pipettes—pesto-filled skewers that deliver fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil without the mess—and bruschetta and mousse complete with edible utensils. Likewise, Hoffstatter and Scrivner recognize they “only have one chance with each guest to make a first impression,” and they make it count, from turning a seafood station into an elaborate, aquatic-inspired display to constructing giant, tiered “foodscapes” of appetizers that tower over guests.

According to Mohlenbrink, such displays have been popping up at catering conventions around the country, on their way to becoming the next big thing in food presentation. “The little birds made out of an orange or what-not… a lot of that is kind of past tense,” he says of yesterday’s animal-inspired food sculptures. “Instead of on tables, now things are going vertical.” It’s a trend Mohlenbrink plans to incorporate in his latest restaurant, a gourmet bistro opening later this summer in Peoria’s Warehouse District, which will feature an ascending wall of exotic sweets, as well as serve up an array of unconventional flatbreads and attention-grabbing salads and sandwiches.

But no matter how the job gets done, at the end of the day, each chef is satisfied as long as he manages to make a dish with incredible flavor—and presentation that elicits an equally incredible reaction. For Mohlenbrink, that means watching guests “awe” over their plates when they arrive at the table, while for Hoffstatter and Scrivner, “seeing the smiles and excitement… makes all the planning and hard work worthwhile.” And while Allen continues to push the limits with his recipes and eye-widening designs, he’s also looking forward to what the next generation of “food artists” will cook up. “The nice thing about Peoria is there’s so much underground talent here. There are very talented chefs [who have] a very bright future,” he affirms. “The time will come when they’re able to put it on display. We’re just happy to be on the front edge.” a&s