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It’s The Thought That Counts: Five Basics On How To Write A Comment Card
KCBS CBJ&CTC 30439
When to write a comment card remains subject to a lot of debate. Personally, I try to write one every time I either score something as a 6 or below or, occasionally, a 7 when I know my comment might help the cook improve his or her score next time. Most importantly, comment cards are optional and have been since their introduction last year. No judge has to write one, ever. Using them is likely to remain something of a contentious subject but, the fact is they are “on the table” and, when properly used are most often welcomed by the cooks.
I participate in several online barbecue forums and on many occasions I’ve run across posts by cooks that tell how much they have both appreciated and learned from comment cards they’ve received. Sometimes, those same posts often mention getting some comment cards that cause some head scratching because the cook either can’t understand the comment or it just makes no sense based on the situation.
Given the high level of appreciation for comment cards and at least some apparent confusion on how to complete them properly, I hereby offer some “rules of the road” about them for your consideration about How to write one. There are many judges who took their basic judging class before the comment card was introduced and who, as a result, haven’t had formal instruction on them. Also the Reps, who often do a quick “comment card basics” lecture during the judges’ meeting, have a very limited amount of time to get their points across. So, relax, think, and ponder these comment card fundamentals . . .
First: In that small space, and in that short period of time before the next category comes in for judging, can you get your thoughts down in writing well enough that the cook can understand it? Let’s face it, not everyone is skilled at writing. The comment needs to be to the point, clear, and well stated enough to be understood. Not everyone can do this. Everyone has different talents and, even if you are a great judge, if you can’t “put it down” in what is a rather challenging situation, get some help. If you have the opportunity, give some input to another judge who is writing one and help him or her make a point. Comment cards are optional for good reason – requiring them might make some otherwise very good and experienced judges either quit judging or, worse, create comments cards of little or no value that are turned in as placeholders. I don’t mean you need perfect grammar or spelling (those don’t matter on a comment card), but I do mean you need a comfort level with writing out your message to get your point across.
Second: Does your comment address something that is within the cooks’ span of control? Cooks control the meat they buy, how they cook it, and how they put it in the box. Once an entry hits the turn in table the cook is out of the loop. For instance, particularly at larger contests, food may take a while to get to judges and thus cool down, so a comment about food temperature like, “your ribs were cold” won’t strike a chord with a cook who may have burned his fingers getting bones in a box. “Sauce spots on the lid” is another problem. Things get bumped and jostled during turn in and delivery to the table and sauce spots on a box lid are neither a mark-down requirement nor something deliberately done by a cook. If something is wrong with an entry that could be outside the control of the cook, it most likely is.
Third: Is your comment qualified? Why you scored something low should be clarified, not just “blurted”. This means it should be appropriate for the situation and in context so the cook will see your point (whether he or she agrees with it isn’t the issue). For instance, a comment like “Your sauce was too sweet” is unqualified. You can say it. You can mean it. It is better than no comment at all if you’ve given a low score because of it, but what does this tell the cook? Not enough. Cooks work to please the tastes of a broad range of people and they already know they can’t please everyone – they are just trying to please as many judges they can. A more appropriate comment would be something like, “Your sauce was too sweet and detracted from the other flavors” isn’t much longer but is much clearer and is qualified. This says you thought the sweetness of the sauce overpowered everything else and caused you to mark the entry down.
Fourth: Is your comment constructive? In other words, could the cook use it to improve results at the next contest or is it just a blunt statement? Comments like “Tough as a boot” or “worst pork I’ve ever encountered” don’t get anything across and can be seen as mean-spirited. Leave this kind of communication to the politicians. Judges need to be on the same side as the cooks – our goal is excellent barbeque and we can work together to create it. The tone of your comment should be supportive, not an attack. “The brisket was tough and needs some work on moisture and texture” is more specific and neutral. The cook doesn’t have to agree with you, but deserves respect and some direction from your comment.
Fifth: Does your comment fit the rules? Think about this one. . . “The chicken skin is supposed to be bite-through tender so I lowered my score.” Is there a rule about tender chicken skin? Nope. There’s no such requirement at all. Our only judging stipulation about chicken skin is to taste it if presented with the entry. “Bite-Through” chicken skin is something many cooks try to achieve to help create an overall positive impression – it isn’t a judging requirement. Thus, this comment is not backed up by fact. A similar comment would be, “Your brisket was sliced too thick and I guess you overcooked it and tried to get it to pull better this way.” Fact: There’s no rule or standard about how thick or thin a brisket slice has to be (or even that it be sliced at all). Again, no rule backs this comment up and it is a waste of time.
So, what should you write on a comment card? What you want the cook to know! It’s not so much what you say but how you say it. It can be about something very important or relatively minor, that’s up to you. If you’re a cook yourself you might even provide hints and short instructions about how to improve. The fact is, that as a KCBS certified judge, your opinion is both important and valuable and a well completed comment card can make you a better, higher contributing judge.
I agree with what our judging instruction CD says about comment cards: “You should know when you give a positive score, a comment is not necessary because the score itself, tells the cook they are achieving excellence in BBQ. . . However, as a BBQ Judge you are encouraged, if you desire, to provide information to the cooks which may help them understand the score you have given and to provide helpful information to improve their performance in the future. The comments should be of the type which will assist them in perfecting their art and skills.” A high score tends to speak for itself. So, I don’t do comment cards on high scores. It’s when I give low ones that I really want to be understood and a comment card is the best vehicle. To make them work, follow the basic instructions on completing the blanks and follow these five basic guidelines:
One final requirement is already in the judging instructions – complete the blanks – since a card without a team number, for instance, can’t be routed to the cook. To help me fill in the card, I jot my 3 scores for Appearance, Taste, and Tenderness on my plate next to the team number – this way I’ve got all the information at hand and can go ahead and turn in my judging slip and complete the comment card more at my leisure.
The future of the comment card is uncertain. The KCBS board is watching the situation closely and might change the rules or even eliminate cards entirely. However, the cards are a simple extension of your judging capability and can be a great vehicle to help judges and cooks communicate and, ultimately, coordinate in working toward excellence in barbeque.
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