The garnish on a dish is meant to be an embellishment. An item thoughtfully chosen and arranged to accentuate the main components of the plate. Besides looking pretty, garnishes serve other functions. They give clues to main flavor components and ingredients, often in different forms or preparations, which should be eaten as part of the dish. Contrast of textures, flavors and colors may also be the intention; adding depth and balance to the final product. The garnish should be thought of and treated as a component that works with the other elements, rather than letting it be its own entity, competing for the attention of the diner.
Non-functional garnishes are what their name implies. They are items which do not play a harmonious role with the rest of the ingredients. Their garish characteristics, ironically, are what sets them apart and calls them out as useless additions. Besides their lack of visual appeal when presented, many tend to be objects that have to be physically removed by the diner before they can proceed with eating their food--destined to remain an eye sore on the lip of the plate for the remainder of the course. Though safe to eat, some of these garnishes are items that are not palatable in their current states. Then there are those that just don't make sense.
Many classic and familiar offenders fall into the non-functional garnish category; their crimes overlooked because we have been desensitized to their effects.
Rosemary and Thyme sprigs - These two, though different herbs, are known to share a number of hangouts and can be used interchangeably. Confirmed sightings include: standing erect in Osso Buco bones and Ratatouille, lying on delicate white fish, and accosting butter during bread service. Please be advised, there has been no evidence thus far proving Rosemary and/or Thyme as an ingredient in any of these applications.
Curly Parsley - Getting on in years, Curly Parsley does not hold the same presence it once did. For decades, its power was widespread and unquestionable, taking a piece of almost anything it could rest upon or beside. In its heydays Curly's territories included but were not limited to broiled seafood, any cut of steak, Roasted Chicken, gelatin molds (unbiased to whatever the suspended ingredients may have been), terrines, rice pilaf and cream soups. Confident in the belief that it is not "non-functional," on the grounds of being a "breath freshener" to be eaten at the end of the course, Curly has been knocked down but not out. Today, Curly Parsley still has some pull in a few demographic areas.
Kale with an Orange Slice - This duo of disaster preys upon the breakfast and brunch crowd; many are unaware of the calamities that lie ahead. Their main victims have a sweet tooth. They sit back and wait for someone to order pancakes, French toast, waffles or crepes. Then they position themselves on the plate with the rest of the food in the classic Orange Slice on top of Kale formation. This is no accident, it's pure strategy. Kale provides the background of varying greens and purples, highlighting Orange's attributes. As the diners eat their meal, they stare at Orange's half-moon curve, soft color and beads of moisture, which seem to glisten magically under the overhead fluorescent light. Too hard to resist, they pick up the fruit and consume its juice packed parts in one greedy, desperate bite. No match for high fructose corn syrup, Orange's sweetness is lost. All that remains is an experience of objectionable tart and sour flavors, which cause the diner to make silly, puckering facial expressions at the person sitting across from them.
Mint and Whipped Cream - Mint is the ring leader, the driving force in this lactic and herbal band of misfits, who terrorize the dessert market so savagely, it has reached the point of absurdity. On its own, real Whipped Cream is, for the most part, a functional, law abiding component. Without mint, it serves as an ingredient or accompaniment for many favorite after dinner delights such as key lime pie, strawberry shortcake, black forest cake, fruit pies and trifles. Teamed up with Mint though, it tends to get caught up in seedy situations and together have been found dealing with unlikely desserts like sorbet, flan, apple galette with vanilla ice cream and creme brulee. Mint can and will act alone if need be. In many cases it attaches itself directly to the confection, forcing the diner to remove the obstruction before eating.
It is so easy to criticize and pass judgment on anything and everything we see. Many chefs strive for refinement and elegance in their cuisine...cuisine with no place for non-functional garnishes, just as there is no place for shorts in their dining rooms. Is it wrong to wear shorts? No, of course not, but it has to be in the right setting. So is there a setting for non-functional garnishes?
Picture a seafood restaurant. A little mom and pop joint next to the water, where the menu is limited, the plates are heavy and the napkins are paper. The food comes out and the whole fish is amazing, super fresh and perfectly cooked. Next to the head lies a sprig of Curly Parsley. Is this something to get up in arms over? Was the integrity of this dish ever compromised? The fish could have easily stood by itself without the help of its curly, green companion. Know what? Who cares about the garnish at that point because there's good food, probably beer...and most likely you're in shorts.