I have always enjoyed the idea of ingredients served in several services from the traditional Peking duck in two courses to the inspiring lobster in three, which we witnessed by Laurent Tourondel. Small and complimentary dishes are not a new concept, Rocco Dispirito, in his heyday, had a menu of 21 bites, seven rounds of smaller composed dishes which, when brought together, became a meal. Thomas Keller paved the way for American chefs who want to create only tasting menus, capturing the essence of an ingredient and an idea with each plate. Pierre Gagnaire has created another pathway serving small and large dishes in harmony, while Paul Liebrandt, at Corton, has turned it into an edible art form.
Small dishes are accents, sparks, thoughts in a longer chain of a meal. These micro creations can play a formative role in the shaping of a meal. Bigger dishes add substance and structure, while their smaller counterparts are often the polish and detailing. A larger plate can be balanced and nuanced, and a little something on the side or as a preview or complement raises the bar. The delicate touch needed to understand the synergy of juxtaposing large and small dishes is more difficult to execute than it is to write about. My imagination sometimes leaves me trying to put too many small dishes on one plate in order to add substance and to demonstrate culinary prowess. However there are times when the multiple preparations and micro presentations detract from the whole. Editing is key. Small and large plates are not interchangeable formats and have different parameters for success. If a pig and its parts were served in three small dishes, the parade of tastes, one following the next so that each element shines could not be combined as one because it would muddle the individual effects, much like the Monty Python line of putting it all in a bucket.
It is not easy to design and present dishes in complementary forms. It is even more difficult to orchestrate this sort of service out of a professional kitchen, never mind in a home environment. The complexity of ideas, timing, and execution is not well suited to a residential kitchen, though the approach should make you think. Very often in our homes what we eat and how we consume it is overshadowed by convenience and the mess factor. In composing ideas and refining thoughts and tastes we could benefit by looking at the smaller picture.