Chefs Need to Practice Critique – Not Criticism

The battle scars are evident in any kitchen that carries on in the shadow of the school of the tyrant chef.  “Like father, like son” seems to be the driving force behind the high stress, unforgiving, take-no-prisoners approach that is thankfully fading, but still exists in today’s kitchens. A recent article by Eric Ripert refers to the “shouty” chef and how it is n o longer appropriate in a kitchen that expects to be successful, but although true, the tenor of the operation is only part of the issue. The real challenge is for chefs to understand that their primary role in operating a professional kitchen is to teach and train. Neither teaching nor training can exist in a business that is run by a demagogue who creates an environment of fear, mistrust, stress and poor communication.

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ACF Chef competitors listen to critiques from judges.

If we begin with a basic realization that there is a difference between critique and criticism and that knowing this difference can dramatically change the focus of a kitchen and the responsiveness of those who work there, then we might just be on to something important.

Criticism and pessimism destroy families, undermine institutions of all kinds, defeat nearly everyone and spread a shroud of gloom over entire nations.

– Gordon B. Hinckley

Some people tend to misunderstand the impact and shallowness of criticism. Criticism, in a sense, is a person’s way of simply saying “I don’t like” or “I don’t agree.” This, of course, is an important part of free speech and the foundation for healthy dialogue. Where criticism goes astray is leaving it at that. I have yet to meet a person who feels good about a disparaging comment, a criticism of his or her work, personal appearance or the things that he or she believes in. The gut reaction is almost always to become defensive or feel betrayed. Those who have been a part of criticism either as the giver or receiver know that this reaction is predictable and understandable.

I have yet to see a cook respond in a positive manner to a chef, manager or customer who simply says, “Your food or your work isn’t good.” To anyone with any sense of pride, this is a devastating comment, one that leads to anger or questioning of one’s ability to do the job. Remember, the chef’s true responsibility is that of teacher or trainer, and as such, the use of criticism is always counterproductive.

Now, I am not one of those contemporaries who feels that it is possible to run a kitchen without strict standards, without consequence for shabby work or without pointing out areas where cooks need to improve. On the contrary, any kitchen without this focus is destined to failure. What I do propose is that chefs learn that critique is a far better approach. Critique points to areas where improvement is needed or a mistake is made and tempering it with active demonstration or explanation on how the individual can correct the mistake or improve the process. Employees look up to a chef who takes the time to help them grow. Chef Ripert has learned this leadership skill over the years as have many other chefs who are intent on taking fear and contempt out of the kitchen method of operation that existed for far too long.  There is, after all, a high level of probability that if a cook does not follow a proper procedure, fails to execute a dish as it was intended or lacks the consistent ability to set the stage for success on the job, it is likely due to a chef’s lack of effort with training and teaching.

“Tell me, and I will forget it. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.”

– Confucius

Every excellent teacher understands the significance of this statement and tries, in his or her own way, to incorporate this process into their teaching style. The chef who rolls up his or her sleeves to work with and demonstrate why something needs to be done a certain way will draw attention and respect from cooks and find a level of enthusiasm for excellence that might not be otherwise possible. Chefs need to spend a few minutes each day working with the dish crew to demonstrate the process of and importance of spotless plates and glassware. Chefs need to spend time on the line with cooks showing them the reason for structure in using proper cooking methods. Every chef needs to interact with service staff in the front of the house to explain why it is important to present a plate in a certain manner to a guest or describe a dish in a way that shows understanding and passion for the food prepared behind the swinging doors.

Don’t be part of the problem by simply expressing anger or criticizing those who perform, be part of the solution by understanding their situation and working with them through proper training and teaching to build a real understanding of how and why. This is the difference between criticism and critique. This is the difference between a successful chef and one who struggles to get his or her team on the same page.

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Paul Sorgule has been a chef and educator for more than four decades holding positions as hotel executive chef, food and beverage director, faculty member, dean of culinary arts and provost at a prominent culinary college. Sorgule is president of Harvest America Ventures, a restaurant and culinary school consulting and training company he formed in 2012. He blogs about culinary issues and finding that work/life balance at www.harvestamericaventures.com.

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