Plating Like a Professional

Featuring:  Chef John Schopp

For many at-home bakers, plating a dessert is not always much of a concern. However, we can still take many tips from professionals on how to plate desserts and can even apply those to how we present our desserts to guests. One of these such professionals is Chef John Schopp from Kentucky, who has been interested in cooking and chefs since he was seven years old. His passion for culinary arts and baking has brought him amazing success, from baking and decorating elaborate wedding cakes to seven full-time years as the pastry arts instructor for Virginia Western Community College's Culinary Institute. His success has even brought him as far as the Food Network's Halloween Baking Championship!

Even amongst all of his accomplishments, Schopp still believes that there is room for him to grow, he states that "there's always that artistic eye," even when it comes to plating desserts. "Today's diner eats as much sometimes for entertainment and art as they do for fulfillment and satisfaction." Schopp explains that whatever you are plating should be well-made and delicious first, and then also attractive and pleasing to the eye. A dessert can have one of the prettiest and elaborate plating designs, but if it does not taste good it is meaningless.

Your plated desserts should taste good, look enticing, and Chef Schopp believes that whatever you're plating should also be fresh. "Flavors should speak for themselves and be pure, fresh is always best." A delicious dessert does not need to be complicated and flamboyant. For Schopp, "classic desserts are some of the best desserts. Just like a simple pop song, you can remember it because it's simple and done right and everybody can get it, it's approachable to everybody."

Simple is great, but do not be afraid to think a little outside of the box and mix up your flavors and textures. Schopp says "I always think it's fun to just surprise your guests! Maybe when you take a bite there's a cold element in a hot dessert or something that's crystalized and covered in chocolate melts when you put it in your mouth. Other than that, I think there should be textural contrast, so we should have a crunch element, and we should have some things that are soft and tender."

When choosing what flavors to include on your plate and even when deciding on what kind of dessert to make, keep in mind what your guests will be eating prior to the dessert course. Schopp suggests, "if they're eating very heavy foods don't finish with a heavy dessert. Try to give them something that is light and refreshing and cleanses their palate on their way home so they're not so full and can enjoy themselves." Some of those lighter, more refreshing flavors might include, but are not limited to, mint, vanilla, and just about any kind of fruit.

Know what the meal will be like before dessert is served, but also know your audience: your guests! "Pick desserts that will lead you to success versus failure," Schopp further explains that even temperature is an important factor in what you are plating. For example, "if a dessert is supposed to be cold the plate should be chilled... if your environment doesn't allow you to do that, pick a different dessert."

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Chef Schopp is quickly becoming a world-renowned chef as a part of the American Culinary Federation (ACF). He is president of the ACF's Southwest Virginia Chapter, and has been traveling all over the country and the world to help others receive an ACF Certification. Chef Schopp has acquired an extraordinary total of four ACF Certifications himself. First, he gained his Certified Executive Chef (CEC), followed by the Certified Executive Pastry Chef (CEPC) and Certified Culinary Administrator (CCA). Most recently, Schopp has received his fourth certification to become a Culinary Educator (CCE), a title that the ACF has declared to be the equivalent of having a master's degree in education. Furthermore, having four certifications is a rarity in the ACF, and he states in an interview that "it is rumored that there's only four or five people out of 10,000, but there may just be two uniforms" including himself that get the honor to wear the four certifications on their ACF Chef jacket.

As a Pastry Arts Instructor at Virginia Western Community College, Schopp has spent seven full-time years educating the up-and-coming chefs and bakers around the Roanoke
Valley. Some of his current classes include Artisan Breads, Chocolate and Sugar Arts, Advanced Baking, and his favorite is the Introduction to Baking class because he has learned how "that's what captures the interest of students that don't think they're baking and pastry people."

In 2016, Schopp appeared on the Food Network's Second Season of their Halloween Baking Championship. When asked what the biggest thing was that he learned while being on the show, he didn't hesitate in explaining that he learned just how many people were supporting him through everything. "The reason I believe that I've achieved the successes that I have is mainly attributed to the support group around me. All the people that sacrifice to allow me to do the things I want to do, that my career demands: my wife, my father, my children, my colleagues, Ted, Chef Z., my kitchen... all of the people around me have made me who I am."


Chef Schopp advises that you should try to keep things off the rim of the plate to keep it neat and clean, anything else you put on your plate should make sense and be completely edible. Even if the inedible component you want to include might look great, you do not want to sacrifice the flavor of your dessert for something that can't be eaten. In addition, you would never want someone to mistake that inedible element as something that they can eat and suffer the consequences after doing so. Schopp also says that when you use a citrus on a dessert, do not include the pith or the rind unless it is candied. Leaving the pith or rind on a citrus fruit could completely throw off your intended flavors because of its intense bitterness.

Schopp reminds us of the "importance of the main element or main flavor of the dessert," he says that we shouldn't let that be taken away by too many gimmicks and flashy things. If you put all your tricks onto one plate it will become overwhelming, "just remember: less is more!" Just as you wouldn't want to overwhelm your guests with too many odd flavor or texture elements, you also wouldn’t want to overwhelm them by crowding the plate with too many things.

Once you've decided on all of the elements you are using for your plated dessert, think and plan out how and where you will place them on the plate. Feel free to practice on a spare cutting board or another plate to get a better feel for what you want to do, you can even look for plating inspirations online.

Instead of just drizzling the chocolate over the dessert all over the plate, try piping it out to create a specific design or even just as series of dots/lines as Chef Schopp has done. Use a spoon for other kinds of sauces to pour dots on the plate or shmear it with a spatula (as shown by the lemon curd and caramel sauce in Schopp's example). You could even put your sauce in a squeeze bottle to better control where you want to pour it on the plate. For his plated dessert, Chef Schopp has also created piped chocolate butterflies and meringue ahead of time to place on top of the brownie.

Another technique that Schopp uses is dusting the powdered sugar on top of the brownie and the dehydrated raspberry powder around the plate. Shopp took a couple pieces of paper and placed them around the edge of the brownie to confine the powdered sugar to a specific area on the top. This allowed him to better control the look and design of his plated dessert to keep it clean and precise. You can do the same on your dessert or on the plate to dust a line or a specific section. Use a piece of paper, fork or spoon to leave a silhouette on the plate for a fun effect or get creative and use a stencil of a specific image! A small sifter (as shown in the picture to the right) is most helpful when dusting a powder onto your desserts, don't add too much, however, because it will easily overwhelm your other flavors.

Consider balancing not only your flavors, but also the placement of all the elements you're incorporating in your plated design. Contrast the shapes of your dessert with a different shaped plate or do the same with the elements of your dessert: squares and circles, curves and lines, flowing and angular. Add height to your dessert to make it that much more eye-catching, and will add a more artistic feel to your plated dessert. So if you have the time and can fancifully plate your dessert, go for it! Have fun with it and don't get too bogged down with overcomplicating the design and flavors. All in all, Chef Schopp emphasizes that "desserts should be fun, desserts leave that lasting impact at the end of the evening, so don't let people down. Really, it should be something that's just celebrated!"


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