May 13, 2014

By: Ryan Hodros, Pastry and Culinary Arts Student

For any who doesn’t know, in addition to being a student at Auguste Escoffier School of  Culinary Arts, I’m also a beer critic for 303 Magazine.  This puts me in something of a bind, because as a chef/writer, I sympathize with the creators and the struggle they go through every day to bring either delicious meals or fun stories for people to enjoy.  At the same time, I also understand the plight of the critic, who (when they’re doing their job correctly) maintain as much objectivity as possible in order to stand between businesses and consumers in order to advocate for consumer rights.

Everyone’s A Critic1

It’s difficult to strike a balance between the two ends of the spectrum, but it’s also given me an interesting perspective when it comes to the subject of criticism, which many students may find useful.  Essentially, I’ve found there are three kinds of criticism that people should keep an eye out for:

1. Criticism for the sake of criticism

In the discussion of any art form, it’s really easy for the people talking to get bogged down in the idea that positivity doesn’t sound as smart as negativity.  I really wish there were a nicer way to state this fact, but in reality, a lot of critics find it difficult to satisfy their need to impress their peer group while still maintaining a positive attitude.

I find that this often becomes an issue during sensory analysis, not just with my class but in general.  It’s easy to find faults (especially in something as subjective as culinary taste) but it’s difficult to take a stand and say “I like this as is.”  As a result, it’s easy for a student learning an art form to quickly become discouraged because it seems everything they do has flaws, and that’s hard to cope with.

2. Criticism for the sake of feelings

Everyone’s A CriticIt can sometimes be difficult to criticize friends and colleagues.  It’s natural to want to spare the feelings of people in your peer group—after all, chances are fair you do it for family, friends, spouses, and children all the time.  The idea of a “little white lie” is a common subjective of discussion in pop culture, and with most people in one’s life, they’re totally acceptable.

But as an artist, it’s important to gain the ability to spot false praise.  Arguably, false praise is more dangerous than needless criticism because it harbors a sense of false confidence that can inhibit artistic growth.  It’s easy to say “I’m thirsty for knowledge, and I never stop learning,” but putting that idea into practice is much harder.

I personally experience this much more often in terms of my writing than my cooking (Chef Robert ensures that) but it’s important as an artist in any medium to filter out undeserved praise.  Unfortunately, this means you have to be your own harshest critic, and that can sometimes be a difficult position to fill.  But it’s worth it, because the third form of criticism…

3. Constructive criticism

Everyone’s A Critic5…is the greatest gift an artist can receive.  I’ve been cooking at an amateur level for the better part of two decades, but in the six weeks since I’ve started the culinary arts program, my abilities have grown by leaps and bounds.  Of course, this is because the expert instruction has shown me a number of ways to cook food I never knew about before, but it also helps quite a bit.

Specifically, my palate for seasoning (salt and pepper) has increased exponentially.  The proof is in the reactions I’ve been getting in food I make at home.  Friends and family have noticed an increased quality my food.  My plating abilities have also increased quite a bit without increasing the length of time it takes to go from conception to completion.

I personally try to form my criticisms in class in the form of suggestions rather than attacks.  “I think that poached salmon would’ve been better with some kind of crunch element.”  “I think that soufflé could’ve used some kind of acidic sauce, like raspberry.”  And so on.  Many of the criticisms from Chef Robert and the other chefs at Escoffier tend to be formed in this way, suggesting methods the students can use to improve their current techniques.  With the amount of experience in the classrooms at any given time, this is the most invaluable part of the education.

It can be tough for any artist to take criticism.  I know because I’ve never been good at it, and I doubt anyone who takes their art seriously can.  But it’s an important skill to cultivate, and through the sensory analysis portion of your education at Auguste Escoffier, you will develop this ability.  Not only will this help your skills in the kitchen, but it will increase your abilities in any other activity you take part in.  As a professional, this skill will take your far.