Don’t Blink: “We Eat With Our Eyes” – Chef Alison Iannarelli on the Value of Visuals in the Culinary World #VisualPeople

by Samantha Mehra

This article appears as part of Visual People, a weekly Q&A series devoted to profiling visually in-tune folks who work in a diversity of industries (such as chefs, teachers, interior designers, cartoonists, and more) from all over the map. Keep up to date by subscribing, or following along on Instagram. #visualpeople


Allow me to be transparent, readers. I’m interviewing one of my good friends of over a decade: Executive Chef Alison Iannarelli. She’s a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen, and I’ve had the immense pleasure of watching her move up the ranks in the culinary world as a no-nonsense, incredibly gifted chef de cuisine, gaining experience in the golf and yacht club industries; taking a crack at corporate restaurant culture; and now, heading up a group of hopeful culinary students as Executive Chef at the New School of Hospitality Tourism and Culinary Arts at Centennial College (Scarborough), educating and inspiring future kitchen wizards through experiential learning.

It makes sense, really; Alison is a born educator. She has stood in my kitchen, her clothes dusted with flour, kneading dough with force as she instructs my blundering self on how to feed pasta through a machine to make linguini (Note: it requires serious upper-body strength, folks). She’s on speed-dial when I’m trying to choose a good cut of beef in the grocery store. She’s taught an entire group of friends how to properly cook mushroom risotto at an otherwise casual gathering (more than once). The Chef is constantly teaching, both inside and outside of the classroom. Simply put: She’s the foremost food expert in my daily life (and the lives of others), and her food, just like her self, is generous and memorable. Today we discuss how to make things pretty for the palette, our favourite TV chefs, Italian artistry, and where to find the most good-lookin’ grub in the global food court.

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SM: So, you’ve had quite a career so far, moving from the restaurant industry, to the club industry, to the education stream. Where are you at now, and what do you do?
AI: I am currently the Executive chef, Restaurants and Events, at Centennial College’s School of Hospitality Tourism and Culinary Arts (Scarborough, Ontario). There, I am responsible for the experiential learning operations that include The Local Restaurant and Cafe and the Centennial College Event Centre. These operations are entirely run by students in class, and are led by faculty, students completing their fourth semester Culinary externship, and a highly talented team of Sous Chefs. In these operational environments, the students are learning hands-on what the industry is like, and from day one are picking up the practical skills needed to continue a career in culinary and food service. 

SM: You’re in charge of crafting young, hungry minds, and that’s a big (but often joyous) responsibility. What do you teach these aspiring culinary artists about the importance of the visual (plating, table-side preparation, food photography) in the role of Chef?
AI: In the culinary industry, how food looks is obviously significant. As chefs, we work hard to make sure the food we prepare tastes amazing. However, taste is only fifty percent of the dining experience: People eat with their eyes first, so how the food is prepared, presented and plated is highly important, and involves great skill. In my role at Centennial College, I work with my team of talented chefs to teach students the hands-on skills needed to create and present the most attractive food possible, all the while making sure everything tastes fantastic. As educators we strive to help the students leave the college prepared to practice and develop their art in the culinary arts industry.

SM: When it comes to the visual experience of food, are there some basic rules of thumb that you impart to your students?
AI: The main rules that I try to get across are easy: Present a clean plate, incorporate a variety of complementing colours, and incorporate multiple textures. Although it’s a formula, each situation is different: The plate itself, the type of dish, and the type of client all play a role in determining how the dish should look.

SM: You’ve trained at home and abroad, with stints in both Italy and France. What did you learn about the power of good-looking food in those countries? Did they have a plating playbook?
AI: In my opinion, both countries have two sorts of views when in comes to the appearance of food. I’ll speak to Italy: I spent a few years there, first training and then working. The training emphasis was on the flavour and achieving the classic “look” or appearance of the dish. For example, we learned how to make delicious pasta dough and then how to carefully shape it in to agnolotti or tortellini by hand. Essentially, this was a simple task, but it required such a delicate touch, and such care to achieve that classic, signature, specific look. Once I graduated from my Italian culinary program, I went to work in a fine dining restaurant in a boutique hotel, where we were given classic dishes to craft and encouraged to plate and serve in any way we chose, as long as it looked beautiful. It is very unusual that a restaurant would not insist that the same dish always be plated the same way; as a culinary artist, having this freedom helped to inspire my creativity and I was able to find a style of my own.  To this day, Italy still takes great pride in the classic and authentic beauty of what each dish is; the emphasis is more on the item itself, and on the flavours and colours that make up this beautiful, simple cuisine.

SM: We both love travel, and I know you’ve done your fair share of it over the past decade. Are there spots you’ve visited that have blown you away with attractive food?
AI: This is a hard question to answer because I love food everywhere! However, one country that I was pleasantly surprised by (especially in a culinary way) was Portugal. Their cuisine is so fresh, simple and colourful; it is always amazing. The cuisine is eye-popping with its beautiful seafood, fresh vegetables, and wide array of fruits from the most basic to the most tropical. I have dined at both local cafés and Michelin Star restaurants there and I can tell you that, regardless of where I’ve eaten, I never leave Portugal disappointed.

SM: Television is a way that we can, without much expense, travel the globe from the comfort of our living rooms or laptops. There are so many industry leaders, on and off of television, who continue to disrupt the culinary arts and how we think about food and its impact on the senses. Who do you consider ‘master artists’ when it comes to creating beautiful food?
AI: To be honest I don’t have one particular favourite, and I think all great chefs make beautiful food, no matter if it is plated for fine dining or placed in the centre of the table on a platter for a family meal.  But, I am forever inspired by chefs like René Redzepi of NOMA, who uses so many beautiful local and foraged ingredients that are so seemingly simple, yet utterly beautiful. Chefs like David Chang are an inspiration, too: he can take a simple classic dish, add his own inspirations to it, and by the end of the process have created an artful food fusion on the plate. I think that all the great chefs in the industry today are wonderful artists, and they inspire up-and-coming chefs and introduce many people to the art of the culinary.

SM: Those two guys are my favourites on *many* different platforms, Instagram and Netflix included! Food television is definitely the reason I’ve heard tell of them. Food TV is an ever-growing industry now, and the visual obviously matters within it. What are your current favourite chefs or food shows?
AI: My current favourite is Ugly Delicious with David Chang. The show concentrates on the beauty, authenticity and deliciousness of both classic and fusion-inspired cuisine, and shows the many different styles and ways that different countries and cultures make similar but equally beautiful, beloved foods.

SM: You also have some food television experience in your back pocket, and so you’ve created food behind the scenes to deliver a more visually stunning experience for viewers. What kinds of things are taken into account in the presentation of food on television?
AI: When preparing food for television, appearance is key, especially when it comes to colours, contrasts, shine, and the size of plate versus the portioning. A dish that gets the TV treatment needs to be especially visually appetizing and evocative, as the viewers don’t have the ability to taste.

SM: Yeah, they can’t lick the screen, it’s true! In addition to those TV stints, you’ve worked in the club industry, in corporate kitchens, and have catered your share of events as well. Do any of these industries value aesthetics more than others? 
AI: The appearance of food is important to every culinary industry; people eat with their eyes first, and then their mouths. The expectation of the appearance may change for some but, at the end of the day, it always has to look good, regardless of whether it is a petite canapé at a cocktail reception, a big tray of pasta on a buffet table, or a fillet mignonette with foie gras on a fine dining dinner menu.

SM: If you can remember, tell me about the most visually stunning dish you ever had and why it was memorable.
AI: I wouldn’t call them the most visually stunning dishes I ever made, but the most memorable and ones that I am the proudest are the dishes that I prepared during my Certified Chef de Cuisine practical exam. Achieving this designation was a highlight in my career and something that I am the proudest of.

Thinking of taking the leap into the culinary arts, and living a visual life in the kitchen? Canada has plenty of programs to choose from. To learn more about the Centennial College program, click here. To read on about the Certified Chef de Cuisine program in Canada, have a look here. Buon Appetito.

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Do you know someone who leads a visual life, and should be featured in this series? Are you a visual creator and are dying to discuss your work? Cool. Do you have any errors to report? Fantastic. Just Tell us about it.

*This conversation has been adapted in order to get to the nitty gritty of the interviewee’s life, work, and creative process(es). A healthy Thank-You to Alison Iannarelli for donating her expertise, time, and know-how, and giving her permission to use the above images for the purposes of this article.

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