Recently, my poor son—who’s generally as tactful as a seasoned diplomat—erred badly on the side of brutal honesty. And it’s (sort of) my fault.
He was visiting some friends during the holidays, and the host’s mother proudly brought out some of her “family-famous” cookies for him to try. This lady had heard that I was a cookbook author and after learning that my son had been a “taster-rater” of many of my cookie recipes, wanted him to judge hers, too. “I told her I really didn’t feel comfortable with that,” he related, “but she kept insisting, so finally I did.”
He gave her treats a score of “6.5 to 7 out of 10.” Immediately, all chit-chat ceased, and the room temperature dropped 30 degrees. His attempt to backpedal by adding that the cookies were “just a little bit dry and needed more flavor” didn’t help. “She only wanted me to say I liked them,” he lamented. “She wasn’t really interested at all in how to make them better!” He seemed startled at that, no doubt because it’s always why I want to know.
Which brings me to the point of this story: If you’re a professional creating recipes that people are paying for, you must move yourself beyond just wanting to be flattered by feedback. Seek out honest criticism. Force yourself to get past feeling insulted and act on the information provided. (For more on recipes that are good enough for publication go here.)
Because I stress to my recipe testers and taster/raters that I need the truth, I get it—and, on occasion, it’s brutal (yet often funny, too): “These cookies would be good for packing material and nothing else!” is probably the meanest, most colorful criticism I’ve ever gotten. Right up there with it is a taster-rater’s comment on a white chocolate mousse with mocha sauce, “Couldn’t bear to eat this at first--looked like mashed potatoes and gravy!” A 1.5 appearance rating--ouch!
Though such comments may seem unnecessarily harsh and should never be directed at a home cook, they alerted me to serious taste, texture, and appearance issues. I needed to know them to produce professional-quality dishes (the mashed potato-gravy problem hadn’t occurred to me at all).
Since most of us have been schooled to be kind about people’s cooking, it’s not only important for the professional food writer or cookbook author to seek out honest opinions, but to put in perspective the comments of those who are overly enthusiastic or just being nice. My editor at Wiley, Justin Schwartz, says that in particular, bloggers with lots of loyal followers tend to be swayed too much by flattering feedback and often need a dose of hard truth:
“I’ve had people tell me they probably just need someone to help them cross the t's and dot the i's, when I already know their recipes need massive reworking. Bloggers all think that. …. They'll say things like, ‘But my recipes are good, and I know it because my fans tell me so.’ …. Are their friends/testers just not mentioning the problems?” If you’re a blogger interested in writing for cookbook or food editors, consider whether this observation might apply to you.
Is it ever pleasant to have testers or tasters pick at or diss my dishes? No, not even after thousands of recipes critiqued over many years. But it’s a lot better to have somebody privately tell me a recipe should only be fed to the garbage disposer than to have a disgruntled reviewer give it 1 star and say that on Amazon.com!