At my past job as head chef, I had a young kid on staff who had been dishwashing for a few months. One night I was on the line by myself getting pummeled with tickets, and out of nowhere this kid just threw himself in the fire and just got after it. A pure natural. I'm not going to say he know what he was doing, but he had a knack for it, and has since developed into a fine line cook. I’ve taken a new position at a different restaurant but still keep in contact with him. He recently asked me to write him a letter of recommendation for culinary school. I would really like to help him out but have never written a letter of this type in my life. I was wondering if you could help me out with some tips.
– Robert Trovitch, Chef, Rocco’s, Hazleton, Pa.
I’ve heard from many chefs and managers over the years that writing college recommendation letters for young staff presents a challenge and a stress. I even had a chef call me to ask if he could just tell me what he thinks about a prospective student rather than filling out the online form. I think, like anything else, it’s a matter of reps. As a culinary and hospitality educator, I’ve written hundreds of recommendation letters for jobs and further education. It’s simply not part of the work day for many chefs, managers and restaurateurs, so they may be intimidated.
The irony is you nearly wrote the whole recommendation in your question. That kind of funny, personable and inspiring story is exactly what a good letter should contain. In addition, in a good recommendation letter, be sure to speak to:
- How you know the employee and in what capacity.
- Some of the positive characteristics they would bring to the school.
- Any areas they need to develop that school can help with.
- Any additional information that is not directly related to their job: personality, humor, volunteerism, etc.
- Summary: Do you recommend the student and why?
- Contact information for follow-up questions.
Admissions committees read hundreds or thousands of letters every year. It is important not to exaggerate. Your high school dishwasher is probably not the best cook you’ve ever seen or even the best dishwasher you’ve ever seen. We don’t want culinary students who come to us restaurant-ready. Those folks don’t need us. Speak about the employee’s dedication, drive, maturity and potential—the same things you look for in an employee. We can teach the skills.
Finally, if you don’t recommend the student, do them the favor of declining the request. It’s better to say, “I think someone who knows you better or who has worked with you longer would be a better choice to write this recommendation,” rather than providing a lukewarm or negative appraisal.
More on recommendation letters here.