Good Cooking since 1995
What's that green stuff?
Why do chefs sprinkle chopped parsley on the rim of the plate in
so many restaurants? Actually I'm surprised that this garnish is
still being used by many cooks and chefs, it's certainly not in
You can search the Internet and get a history lesson on the use of parsley as a garnish for food. Going back to the late 1800's butchers used sprigs to enhance the look of the cut meat on display. Even today some do, but during the 1970's many adopted Kale because it didn't wilt as fast and could even be used for a few days in a row. Neither is terribly expensive but if you total up the cost over a year, it may come to several hundred dollars or more for large displays.
In restaurants too, this kind of garnish was adopted. Perhaps it was the French or even the English who garnished grilled meats, particularly lamb chops, with sprigs of watercress. This was known as "Vert Pre" in French and also included a grilled half of a tomato and shoestring French fries, aka, Pommes Allumettes---matchstick potatoes---for a complete garnish. Ah those French chefs, there are specific garnishes for everything from grilled meats, to poached fish and even vegetables and desserts. More on that another day!
In nice restaurants, sprigs of parsley were "de rigueur"---a common garnish for all food except desserts. Somewhere along the line there was an addition and or change in how the parsley was used. To the back burner went the sprigs and on the front burner was chopped parsley! But wait, chopped parsley always existed in French cuisine it was part of many preparations, after all parsley is an herb. A classic "Sauté Meuniere" has lemon juice and chopped parsley added to browned butter at the last minute and then it's poured over sautéed fish that was just cooked previously in the same pan. This is only one example. In the world of restaurants it was common to sprinkle chopped parsley on everything from lasagna, to osso bucco or mashed potatoes to spaetzle. Heck, my grandmother always had plants growing from spring to fall and sprinkled chopped parsley on everything from goulash to roast chicken or buttered noodles to chicken noodle soup. It was and still is a great flavor enhancer and a quick garnish too! I can vividly remember that she would carefully wipe the edge of the plate clean with a damp cloth, if even a speck of parsley somehow landed on the rim of the plate, just before serving it to the family.
The practice of wiping the edges of a plate is well known to many chefs who understand clean presentations: that is, a plate of food served with no sauce drips, spattered grease or anything else on the rim of a plate. I totally adhere to this standard, even doing it at home and have also wiped the edge of a plate in a restaurant, because I couldn't stand for a drip of gravy on my plate!!! You can guess what I think of chopped parsley or even a dusting of spices as a rim garnish---sloppy at best!
The practice began in the early 1980's. I believe it was first introduced somewhere in California during the days of Spa Cuisine. Spa Cuisine was the precursor of healthy eating; you know what you shouldn't eat---cream, butter, cheese and certainly no bacon or steak. It was all the rage with Chefs worldwide coming up with healthy alternatives for their customers to enjoy. I did it myself and introduced "Fitness Cuisine" to the Ritz-Carlton.
Parsley is very good for you and thus incorporating it into a healthy dish made it even healthier. Not only was it sprinkled on the food but now on the rim of the plate, but what isn't known is that it wasn't just parsley back then. Petals of nasturtiums, pansies, sage blossoms, chopped chives and other fresh herbs were used to make the rim look pretty and healthy---it worked and this practice spread from coast to coast and was even adopted by European chefs. It looked great but it was very expensive, fresh herbs and edible flowers are very perishable as well as expensive. So some chefs had to cut back and they found that a sprinkling of just chopped parsley worked too, especially if a bit of paprika or fennel pollen was added to the mix.
So from the 1980's to 2000's, this fad remained entrenched in many a chef's garnishing repertoire. Not me though, never once have I sprinkled chopped parsley on a plate rim, but I have used the edible flower and fresh herb concoction a few times for special occasions. I'm a shadow of my grandmother, and other professional chefs who like clean rims of plates, no drips and heaven forbid, a fingerprint or a spatter of fat!
Chefs these days have moved on to other visual enhancements or none at all and to my pleasure, more wiped clean rims of plates. But not all chefs have evolved past the trend. I see the use of chopped parsley on the rim of a plate in many sports bars, large chain restaurants and in many American Italian eateries. One of the finest restaurants in New Orleans still does it, a great Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston, a bar and grill in Key West and a good pizza restaurant in Boston! They are not alone; I suspect thousands of chefs still do too. I see this on the Internet at sites where food pictures are posted all the time. Perhaps it's a lack of training, maybe laziness, not caring or not knowing about other ways to make food look good?
Necessary or not---that is the question. It worked for 20 years, but was just a food trend and food is trendy to some---it looked cute to some diners? I really, really think it is a time for change and hope that this article will be a point of reference for all chefs who still sprinkle chopped parsley on the rims of their plates, to stop and go back to the future. Don't do like the chef next door, get creative and rethink how you can garnish your plates. Go for the clean look and save the bunch of parsley from being chopped. Save money and it will be less work each day too!
See for yourself; the two pictures illustrate what I'm talking about. The one on the left with chopped parsley scattered about and and the right with none and in my opinion, and looking good!
Sea Scallops Saute Meuniere with Mushroom Pilaf
Butter Crumb Roasted Halibut with Sauce Nantua