It is a shade of blue that rarely appears in nature. Perhaps on a sunny day in the Mediterranean, the sea will offer up this crisscross of blue and green. A faint touch of milk to smooth out the acidity of refracted light.
It might also appear in the nest of a mother robin. An eggshell painted for Easter’s new day.
Or perhaps the shade of a semi-precious gemstone from the Navajo desert. Turquoise set into necklaces and bracelets line the stalls of Santa Fe’s main plaza.
Charles Lewis Tiffany had an eye for merchandising. He had an early eye for this color. That precious tint has come to denote the anticipation of joy, the reputation of quality, and the signature of elegance. It also has the power to show off precious metals and stones like few other colors can.
Its gentle shade of green carries enough of the cool light spectrum to make diamonds whiter and sparklier. It hums like Motown singers that allows gold to slice the air like Diana Ross.
In short, it is the color of the foil. That literary device which allow greats like Shakespeare, Stevenson, or Milton to contrast the main character. We appreciate the heights from which they fall when we see the mountain top.
The same is true for a chef’s dish as it is for a playwright’s scene. The eye sees contrast in color, shape, rhythm, and texture.
Consider the deft hand at Cotogna in San Francisco. They stand for authentic flavors savored in simple combinations. Figs arrive in cartons from a farm a horse-ride away. The prosciutto is creamy smooth. Both ingredients blush an intense pink. A color of youth and vitality. A color of innocence and potential energy.
Cotogna presents this dish on a ceramic plate with an intense pea green whose speckled glazed catches the light like a polished stone.
Sushi chefs play with rainbows, too. Their principle material is the paintbox of Impressionists. Straw-colored Panko breadcrumbs. Peach colored spicy mayo, a marriage of devil-red chili and angel-cream aioli. Coral colored fish row. Forest green asparagus. Ruby colored tuna. Inky umber sweet sauce for cooked mackerel. Grassy knoll of avocado.
Paul Qui draws his bow across the cello of taste harmonies. He sets elegant pairings of fish and daikon slivers atop granite. The austerity of delicate fish on a chaise lounge of radish curls. The creamy white flesh glistening with oil and adorned with what must be flower stamen. A copy of Manet’s painting of Olympia in food form.
The dead weight of granite amplifies the power of poise. The deep red colors of the stone echoing a butchers pallet frozen in time like petrified redwood.
These are not accidental pairings. This is the work of vocalist who knows how to hang notes in the air like snowflakes.
Such color juxtapositions are not exclusive to haute cuisine.
Take a bus to the corner of Barton Springs and Lamar in Austin, Texas. 50 paces to the West stands the Green Mesquite. A BBQ restaurant whose single-story building sits quietly among rising apartment buildings. Of the many smokey treats worth noting is their chicken wings.
Imagine the standard recipe of crispy drumsticks and wings tossed in a sticky, spicy sauce. Only elevated. The rules of Central Texas suggests that if it can be, it ought be smoked.
The presentation of this word-of-mouth celebrity is plated on a lime green plate. Since every picnic table is painted in hunters green, the contrast increases. These wings stand like red wildflowers on the Texas plain.
Red and green. Orange and blue. Yellow and purple. These are the natural opposites in world of color. The pairing only heightens the intensity of each.
Tom becomes more Tom-like with Jerry on the scene. Bugs Bunny needs Elmer Fudd as much as Elmer needs Bugs.
Once your eye adjusts to color contrast, set your attention to temperature of material. Become like the artist. Paintings can be made on linen, canvas, burlap, cardboard, wood, metal, glass, stone or flesh. They make conscious choices in how they deliver the message.
Each material contains essential properties. Mineral driven objects like granite or ceramics hold an icey posterity. Even the grace of porcelain comes with rigidity. Part of it’s beauty lies in the potential to be broken into bits.
Plant based surfaces carry a greater warmth and vitality. A plank of wood melts ice. It is the stuff of libraries. Rooms filled to the ceiling with paper tend to dampen sound. The natural enemy to echos.
Such is the way when the chefs at Goodalls present their roasted cauliflower. The golden orb hides a subtle Fibonacci pattern. In this restaurant, the vegetable is roasted to the point where the surface is slightly singed and the body remains creamy.
Emphasizing this balance, the chefs amplify the quiet harmony with a cutting board. Would that they offered a silver platter in its place, the mood would change entirely. The ambiance would move from chamber music to the tink tong dance of xylophone notes.
Your call to action is simple. Pay attention to restaurants who present dishes which cause your pulse to flutter. Dial into the play of contrast of color. Listen to the sound of materials. Understand how the package makes the prize.
Do that and you will create a name worthy to rival that of Charles Lewis.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
–Excerpt from Richard Cory, a poem by Edward Arlington Robinson, 1893