The Aesthetics of Food and How Zen Buddhism Influenced Our Plating

If you’ve been to a fancy restaurant, one of those that serves really small bites on very large dishes, then you might have experienced some Zen plating principles at play.

It doesn’t have to be fancy — but definitely the kind of place that sincerely considers the guest’s experience. The chefs may not know that they are using Zen principles. In fact, every meal they serve could simply be their opportunity to show you how amazing their food artistry is. If that is the case, it is the complete opposite of Zen, and would come off as pretentious or overworked. However, if it imparts a tranquil feeling and shows you a beauty in the ingredients that you may not have detected before, then it is very close to Zen meal.

In Zen Buddhism, meals are meant to nourish the body and the spirit.

This means, if you are the one cooking for others, then it is your job to:

  • Bring out the best in each ingredient.
  • Serve in a way that creates harmony and serenity.
  • Create the right match between food and serving vessel.

This manifesto is part of almost every Michelin Starred restaurant’s mission. The difference is in whether or not the effort is for the guest (Zen) or for the glory of the restaurant (ego).

Ideas, like ingredients, have traveled around the world and have evolved. By the time it lands on your plate, the idea has gone through many transformations, and you might not even know where the idea originated from. I like to believe that if you’ve ever found yourself choosing a certain dish to help highlight your food, or rearranged to make your cheese and crackers look more inviting so it gives a little more pleasure to your guest, then that is some Zen thought at work.

You could argue that this is just being decent hosts, having some design sense, or emulating the service of nice restaurants. But which came first — Zen Buddhism, or the idea of elegance and service, crystallized into 3 Michelin Stars?

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