Unapologetic: The need for criticism in art and entertainment.

Mark Manger
Chef Brian Laird visits two fans at Barolo Grill.
Laura Shunk's recent review of Barolo Grill prompted dozens of responses -- some agreeing that Blair Taylor's iconic restaurant needed to try harder, but many more incensed with Shunk's criticism.

After reading both the review and the comments, Ashley Hausman served up this:

In the entire, albeit short, history of my time living in Denver, I have never experienced such a stir in reaction to a food review such as the one that appeared a couple of weeks ago when Laura Shunk -- food critic for Westword -- put her opinions on Barolo Grill in print.

As a fellow writer of a local wine blog, The Persistent Palate, I was deeply intrigued by the conversation her candid criticism gleaned. In so many words, she decided that Barolo -- once pinnacle of Denver's culinary scene -- had fallen short in recent visits. It didn't deserve the accolades, or credit card transactions, it had graciously gathered in the past. To put it simply, for Shunk, it was no longer the cat's pajamas in a city of ever-blossoming burrows of memorable bites.

But not everyone agreed with Shunk. In fact, the majority of those I spoke to and the evidence on Westword's online commentary were proof that her insights were not only ill-received but they actually left people downright incensed. I get it. I even honestly found myself immediately defensive of my beloved Barolo Grill -- the first place that really caught my attention when I moved to a gastronomically deprived Denver six years ago. But then I thought of Shunk, as a fellow writer, as a commentator of life's leisurely sector, and I wondered how she was handling the criticism. Would she have changed how she wrote that article now? Would she have kept it exactly the same? Are there better ways to execute the same opinion in a less touchy manner? Would it have ultimately been as effective?

It wasn't long ago that I received my first official bad review to one of my blog entries. I envisioned the day that it would come -- promising myself I simply could not take it personally. But it didn't matter. Reading that your writing is "superfluous," "'pretentious" and hardly worthwhile in a world where there are more relevant events taking place outside of improper glassware for a bottle of liquid, it is difficult not to move outside oneself and evaluate one's meanderings as petty and annoying. Who am I to critique another person's hard work in the fields? Who am I to say Sauvignon Blanc is rubbish with beef tenderloin? And if writing isn't always consequential, is it merely self-motivated scribbling? Amidst a spiral of such centrifugal force, I am near quitting a career in wine altogether with the dash of an unapproving pen, it takes a more positive comment -- the nine in ten I typically receive -- to remind me that I am exactly where I need to be.

It is the positive note that compels me to stay at it. That's for sure. However, it's that one in ten negative review that propels me to improve the way I shape my opinion.

At a very basic level, wine, food and really all things art and entertainment are hobbies. They are the particles of life that make the moments more enriching...more meaningful. Most of one's life is spent sleeping, while on the other side of the sun it is spent working, stressing and making ends meet. How often do we treat ourselves to a good meal? A special bottle of wine? Hours to do nothing but read? A three-hour play? An overnight in the mountains? A concert in the park? A movie? A croissant?

When I signed up for working in a wine shop and writing on the side, I decided to do so because I realized something: I had passion. Such passion, it was contagious. Such passion, it was wrong not to share my enthusiasm and curiosity for the hard-grown grape. It becomes those comments nine times of ten where someone discovers a fabulous pairing for the first time or the comments where people relate to a story that compels me to produce yet another portrait in prose.

At first glance, I admit, I was defensive of Barolo Grill -- one of my near and dear eateries in Denver, regardless of how many sensational spots are opening every couple of months. I mean, it was only a couple of months ago I actually gave it a very glowing review myself, so good my experience had been one crisp autumn night -- a setting that makes it impossible for me to stay away from its cozy, comfortable ambience. I adore so many of those who work there, not the least of them Blair, Fletter and Burch -- each of whom make it so special every time I drop in for a bite. But I realize, too, that my lens is biased; I know these guys professionally.

From Ms. Shunk's perspective, there were very concrete and critical levels of service that lacked for her -- from wine service that neglected the fact that she was the person who ordered a bottle and not her male counterpart, to some of the dishes that appeared to have slumbered under the heat lamp a little too long before stumbling to her lips.

In the end, the point is that she, too, is allowed an opinion. In fact, it is precisely opinions such as hers that push art, food and entertainment forward as a whole. It is irrelevant whether her opinion is correct, for subjective input can never be by nature. However, what is a fact is that her words ruffled more than a few feathers. Whether Barolo Grill likes it or not, patrons will have their eyes (and taste buds) on them over upcoming months, anxious to prove her wrong...or confirm her premonition that Barolo Grill needs to "try a little harder."

Like any criticism, this is a perfect opportunity for Barolo to take it up a notch, prove Shunk wrong and reclaim its position as one of Denver's most essential restaurants.

Likewise, Shunk herself will be under closer surveillance in the next several reviews. She has inserted herself in the public's eye, and it is up to her how she will shape her restaurant critiques. I know for myself, there is always a silver lining of truth in every negative review. I strive to not take it personally and learn from its intended message. As a result, I am learning to find my writer's voice -- a voice that remains true to my ultimate motivation for the article, but a voice that is a little more palatable to the everyday consumer/reader.

Personally, I cannot think of a culinary scene in Denver without Barolo Grill, but then again, I have a soft spot for its mid-'90s decor and traditional execution. As we move forward and continue to impress the country with our culinary capabilities in this one-horse metropolis, places like Barolo will increasingly become a rare commodity -- an esoteric gem in its rigidly classic way.

Criticism, whether good or bad, breeds response, conversation and the evolution of culture. It gives purpose and meaning to life's superfluous moments. Criticism gives us the language to discuss and contemplate life's purely poetic parts. But it is difficult. I do not envy Shunk's newfound audience -- many of whom are quite angered by her unapologetic review. She has remarkably held a tight grasp on her words and intentions. In the end, I believe the key is balance. A healthy dose of positive criticism with a dollop of the murkier matter are the ingredients to forming well-received insight. That, compounded with several more years and articles proving one's ability to maintain that balance over time, will eventually prove the worth of one's words in a world where people are skeptical of a writer's experience, skill set and credibility. It is unfair to disregard Shunk, or me for that matter, until we have rightfully developed and earned a pertinent place within the food and wine writing community.

And like a left bank Bordeaux... that may take some time. -- Ashley Hausman

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