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A CRITIQUE OF CRITICISM

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Criticism is something that everyone has to go to through at different stages of life. Would you agree with that statement? But the real question is: does it give you wings or clips them? Is it necessary or totally useless? Perhaps it all depends on the critic’s intentions when uttering criticism?

My first job in a restaurant involved a manual that included recipes with listed ingredients and pictures of all the dishes. Each dish had to look like the one on the picture.
Then I worked at another restaurant, where the food was transferred from a big bag to metal containers, which were consequently placed in the oven and eventually brought to the buffet.
Later in my professional career I experienced a dramatic change in a place where heavy gothic style metal of the surroundings gave the employees the rhythm and inspiration, as well some sort of seriousness to what we were doing. We used tweezers to put single flower petals and herbs on each dish. We were to implement a vision of an insane maestro, without any possibility to contribute anything on our own. We could not even had the luxury of producing a mere thought about altering the whole process.
Finally my dream job. Freedom and the ability to make decisions about the menu. People at each stage consumed by creating one common design. Serving fantastic food in a simple, typical bistro formula. Everyone with their impressive ambitions, aspirations, visions and dreams. Could one ask for more?

I once heard from a close friend: “You never seem to suffer when you are being criticized. And your dishes…” It was an instant STOP sign for me. A moment of illumination to ask myself what was wrong with me. I was 100 % convinced the person who had told me all those harsh words meant well.

The growing number of cooking shows, the steady progression of gastronomy both in Poland and around the world – these subjects draw increasing interest among general public. It makes us, the chefs and cooks, susceptible to constant evaluation and, by extension, to criticism.
Which is a good thing, for sure. Not only does it motivate us, but also inspires us to do more. Therefore, we have a chance for professional growth.

To quote the Soviet author Nikolai Ostrovsky (whose formal education ended after completing only 4 years of elementary school and who, in his short life, wrote the famous novel “How the Steel Was Tempered”):
“Criticism is the essential part of the bloodstream, without which there would be inevitable stagnation and symptoms of illness”

Sometimes criticism can irritate and make you angry…
Starting with an intern, through cooks, waiters, the chef and the proprietor of the restaurant and, last but not least, the customer, we are evaluated, criticized at each stage of our work. We must be vigilant and perfect. Ideally, we should never make the slightest mistake. Always in top form. Physically and psychologically. Expected creativity level – only 100 %.

I once got a text message with a picture from an intern. It showed the sink filled with some dirty dishes from the previous day. The restaurant was closed and I only arrived there to try to invent something new, to experiment a little in the kitchen. When I had finished, I realized that there was no point in turning on the dishwasher for 2 baking trays, 2 frying pans and 8 plates. I thought they could be washed the following day, together with other dirty dishes when the dishwasher became full.
That was not the first time in my career I had been wrong.
The intern the first person to come to work. He did not waste his time, either, promptly taking pictures of the aforementioned sink and posting them on Facebook. (Come to think of it, I got off lightly, he could have posted it directly on my wall).
To quote Richard Carslon, the author of a series of books entitled “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff”: “When we judge or criticize another person, it says nothing about that person; it merely says something about our own need to be critical.”
Back to the topic.
Sometimes we are criticized unexpectedly, e.g. while serving meals. The waiter does not like the way I positioned a dessert on the plate. He prefers another cook’s way. Fine, but it is not fine dining, it is only a bistro, the type with more casual style. Despite that, the waiter must have his way.
“(…) the former chef used sunchoke or kale chips; (…) he puts chives on potatoes; (…) there was a differently shaped parsley cream decoration”… the list of complaints can go on forever.

I once twisted my ankle (while working, of course) and had to be back at work the following day, even though I could hardly walk for the whole 9 hours. Another day, my leg is still swollen, which forced me to take a day off. I was able to monitor the cooks while staying at home as they had a chance to demonstrate their creativity. I had no doubts about their abilities. But when I was satisfied with their teamwork, they chose to criticize my ways of doing business, instead of appreciating their own work.
These are snippets of conversation with them via electronic media:
I get a MMS message with a comment “Your sauce is horrible. Next time try adding less vinegar” Well, I begin to think to myself that perhaps the sauce was not particularly successful, so I write back “Thanks for the critique. When you have made new bouillon, please add it to the sauce and therefore it will be fixed.” Here comes the reply: “Do it yourself!”

” Criticizing is not particularly useful and altogether fruitless, and one becomes conceited, if he chooses to be a virulent critic instead of being a creator.” Copernicus could not have been wrong, could he?

In a restaurant I used to work at I came up with 2 dessert recipes. The process of inventing them lasted about a week, it took one more week to actually make the desserts. There were some problems, so we kept trying fixing them, until we found the solution. Eventually I and another cook created something that seemed superb. Having been immensely satisfied with myself, I decided to put those desserts on the menu. Despite some misgivings about the reception of the new dishes, I felt happy and accomplished.
So it took 2 weeks to work on the desserts… but the waiting staff had their own ideas:
“You know Mira, this dessert is a bit heavy, maybe you could add something to it, like apples or possibly some sea buckthorn?… and by the way, when the head chef returns, he will change your desserts anyway, you know that he likes chocolate tarts, don’t you?…”

Really!?
Why can’t a man, a cook or a sous chef create anything on their own? Must they ask for permission at every stage of the creative process?

What about following that inner voice coming deep from your heart, as Maryla Wolska (a Polish poet of the Young Poland movement ) suggests: “Criticism is like taking gratuitous revenge by a barren mind on a productive one”
How should we create and, at the same time, follow the directions that we feel are the right ones? When do we have to listen to guests, cooks, interns, waiters, head chefs, restaurant owners, husbands, wives, children and perhaps our neighbors for good measure?

How can we do our job so that we would experience happiness and share it with others?

It is not an easy task to accomplish when you have chosen a vocation that says “taste it, make an assessment and tell me what you think”. Let us get inspired by what Emil Cioran (a Romanian philosopher and essayist) said: “Criticism is a misconception: we must read not to understand others but to understand ourselves.”

And how do YOU deal with criticism?