We have a high school kid who has been working with us for about six months. He asked me to write him a recommendation for culinary school. I’ve not done anything like that before—what should I include?
– Emi Shindo, Robata of Tokyo, Allentown, PA
As a culinary educator I have written hundreds of these letters and have read thousands. They are read and taken seriously by admissions committees but are always considered as part of the entire application package. That is, rest easy, because your letter probably won’t make or break his application, but could certainly be a key element in a decision.
First, consider the purpose of the letter. Most culinary schools are looking for a student who will be a success in industry, providing positive numbers for their job placement rates, and making them proud. For proprietary culinary schools like Le Cordon Bleu or Art Institutes, these graduates will be success stories that will appeal to prospective students. For public or private non-profits like community colleges or The Culinary Institute of America, successful alumni are not only useful in recruitment but important financial supporters of the college.
Your letter should emphasize the features of the employee that you think bode well for his future success and will make him, with training and education, a successful industry professional. It is best not to speak too much to the employee’s culinary skills—after all, developing those culinary skills is the job of the school. Rather, think about the factors that are more challenging to teach and can make someone a success: strong work ethic, passion for learning, intellectual curiosity, working well on a team, working at a task until it is perfectly completed, staying calm under pressure, and moving efficiently in a busy kitchen to name a few.
Of course, we must address what to write if the employee is not a strong candidate. It doesn’t serve anyone to embellish. The result could be a student who pays hefty tuition only to struggle in school, and a culinary school that will no longer take your recommendations seriously. In those cases, first ask the student if he really wants a letter from you. That question may prompt them to reconsider. Then, be honest in the areas where the employee needs development. The school’s response may be to take the opportunity to address those deficiencies or may decide the problems are beyond its abilities.
Some practical guides and templates for writing recommendation letters here.