An Open Letter to Culinary Schools & Students.

It’s that time of year again. The floodgates have opened, and I will spend the next month or two perusing ass-kissy um… FLATTERING emails from bright eyed, hopeful culinary students. As part of their curriculum, their schools turn them loose on the local food industry. The goal? To “donate” their labor as part of an internship arrangement.

Now, I’ve never taken on an intern for a variety of personal reasons – namely, I don’t like people. It’s all good, I just learned at a young age that things work SO much better when I work alone. You know. Kind of like how any science lab was an exercise in frustration until lab partners were told to sit down, shut up, and just let me do it. (Before you judge, I NEVER offended anyone, and would only offer up the suggestion when it was QUITE apparent that the partner had NO interest in what we were doing anyway. They happily had me do the work!).

Warning.. Rants ahead!

That was school, and – though I was working for grades- it certainly wasn’t my livelihood. Today, this is my business. Aside from the accounting & photography – which are my husband’s domain – I do everything else. Contrary to the apparent vision of cake businesses involving little more than happily decorating beautiful cakes, this actually leaves me with a lot of stuff on my plate. Marketing. Web maintenance. Dealing with stuff like licenses, insurance, etc. Digging out from email. Shipping. Writing. As little networking as I can possibly get away with. That kind of stuff. Truth be told, even at my busiest cake times, I’d spend no more than 1/5 of my time actually decorating cake. Sorry to break the fantasy, but all the stuff they DON’T show on the reality shows make up the bulk of any small cake business.

I digress. Basically, the point that I’m aiming for is that I run a tight ship – just me. Even if I didn’t prefer to work alone, interns take far more time than I could reasonably be willing to commit to. I just can’t afford to add “babysitting” to my schedule!

Here’s the thing, however. Let’s just say that I could not only handle people, but wanted to AND could fit it into my schedule. I STILL wouldn’t take on an intern. It may have taken longer to get to this point than I’d hoped, but hear me out.

Based on the emails I receive, I believe that culinary schools do an ENORMOUS disservice to their students. I also believe that it’s something that needs to be addressed. I’m about to make some generalizations, and I’ll probably piss a lot of people off… but it needs to be said.

The emails that I receive from culinary school students are some of the most absolutely illiterate garble I receive in a day. Yes, that sometimes includes emails from Nigerian princes and businessmen.

Now, I don’t know what they’re teaching at culinary school – I did NOT take that path, personally – but it’s obviously not the basics of communication.

Thing is, if you’re going to require that the students approach businesses for internships, it would be a GREAT idea to teach them how to. Let me detail some of the issues I’ve had with emails from culinary school students, so you have an idea what you mean. Yes, I’ve saved them all over the years – some are entertaining.

– Query emails should never, EVER include text speak. “U R” gonna have a hard time finding a job if that crap is the first impression you make. This has happened multiple times.

– Use spell check. I really shouldn’t have to try to decipher what you’re trying to say.

– If you don’t know the spelling & meaning of a word or phrase, don’t use it. I cannot tell you how hard I laughed when I finally figured out that “little lone” meant “let alone”!

– If grammar is not your forte, take some time to learn the basic rules. Know the difference between “its” and “it’s”. Know the differences between they’re/there/their, and your/you’re, and use them properly!

– If you’re going to use a form letter, try to edit out the field designations. “Hello , <<name>> I am interested in interning for <<business>>” doesn’t impress anyone. Just type our information in!

– Email target businesses  individually. Sending a blanket “I am looking to intern” email with ALL local cake companies copied as :cc is lame. Make us feel that you want to work with US, not just whoever you may catch in the wide net you just cast.

– For that matter, ALWAYS include a greeting in your email. “Hello”, even. Just starting out with “I was wondering if you might have any opportunities for seasonal employment or possibly a summer intern position.” is rude. Address the person you are contacting before you address what you want from them. This happens SO frequently… it really blows my mind that I even have to bring it up. BASIC communication skills, people!

– Research the company you are contacting BEFORE contacting them. If you email a 1 person business with “to whom it may concern”, you’re not impressing anyone. ESPECIALLY when their name is all over their website. It makes you look incredibly lazy, and that’s not a quality anyone wants to hire.

– Never, ever just send your resume. I count 4 emails here where it’s just “Internship” or whatever in the subject, a completely blank email, and an attached resume. Good lord. Put a LITTLE effort into it!

All of the things I mention here aren’t JUST applicable to looking for an internship, they’re the basics you’re going to need to know in order to secure a JOB or CAREER. Spend some time on one of the many websites out there that detail tips for applying for jobs. It may not pay, but when you’re asking for an internship, that’s EXACTLY what you’re doing.

Schools, you advertise that a lot of your students get hired right out of school. Well, great… it’s in your best interest to properly equip these people to do so, why not even invest an hour of time going over the basics I’ve outlined above? Your students represent you, and trust me, some of us judge. One local school seems to consistently provide the most insanely inappropriate, illiterate, and unintentionally hilarious requests for internships. You know what? I would NEVER recommend anyone to go there, and have used that argument to actively discourage attendance when asked for an opinion. Do you really want to be known as the school that churns out idiots? I hope not!

On top of all the basics that apply elsewhere, I have a couple of other pet peeves that seem to crop up a lot. I can’t speak for how appropriate/inappropriate they may be in general… so the mileage may vary with other companies. This is my blog, and I’m on a ranting roll, so I’m gonna address them!

– If you give me a starry eyed description about how you want to open your own cake shop straight out of school, I’ll laugh. For a myriad of reasons, too! Most of these emails display NO grip on reality at all. Many cite reality shows as the reason that they aspire to own a shop. None reference any sort of business training, acumen, or even interest. The cake business may involve cake, but it’s a business – not just frosting, rainbows, and unicorns. Also, seriously, if you’re going to invest tens of thousands of dollars into a career because of a reality show? Just.. Wow. Yes, I judge.

– I’ve lost count of how many emails reference the fact that the student is / has been running a home based cake business, sometimes for upwards of a decade. Wow. Where to start with this?

Well, for one, it’s illegal to do that here in Minnesota. Most people that operate home based food businesses do so not out of IGNORANCE to the law, but out of decision that the law doesn’t / shouldn’t apply to them. I’ve heard every excuse you can think of, most are based in nothing more than entitlement mentality. Well, guess what? This is my business, and I cannot imagine hiring someone who feels they can pick and choose which laws apply to them. That’s a HUGE risk for any employer to take.

Secondly, running a business costs money. It also requires certain steps to be taken. Renting a kitchen, commercial equipment, insurance… that all contributes to the price I have to charge for my cakes. Your ability to offer impossibly low prices for your cakes – as you advertise on your “business” website, as listed in your resume? That’s an “advantage” that those of us in the business do not have. Our need to follow the rules means that your actions are detrimental to the industry that is our bread and butter. The idea of teaching MY knowledge to someone, just so they can sell it for 1/3 the price? So not cool.

Ok. One last thing.

This was all precipitated by a baffling exchange I’ve had the past 2 days, with another culinary school student. She asked about “stoge”, using the term several times. I’d never heard it before, so I ran it by another friend in the industry. She actually works with schools and culinary school students, and she had no idea. Google had no idea. This person had used the term several times, so I knew it wasn’t a typo. I couldn’t see it being a matter of auto complete.

Well, the mystery was solved this morning when she informed me that “stoge” rhymes with “camouflage”. OH. “STAGE”. (As in, French). Well, fine then… but let’s go back to “little lone”, shall we?

“Stage” is a fairly common term in the culinary industry / schools, so far as I can tell. Why someone would have a bizarre grasp on how it’s spelled is beyond me… but why not just say “intern”. Let me climb up onto a taller soapbox for a second…

People are getting more and more illiterate. It shouldn’t hurt my brain or make my eyes bleed to read ANY communication, yet it seems to be happening on a more frequent – and egregious – level all of the time. More and more, people seem to be losing any grasp on the English language.

So, dear culinary industry… can we drop the pretension? As a Canadian, I like to think I have a fairly decent grasp on French. It’s our second official language, after all, and is something that’s drilled into our heads from the time we’re in Kindergarten.

However, it’s not the second language here in the USA. It’s not even the 3rd, really. I understand that the idea is “French makes it fancy/high end”, but if your students are (dys!)functionally illiterate, please… keep it simple. Master English before invoking French.

Personally – and I’m sure I’m not alone here – I respect someone with good, basic grammar over someone who can’t grasp those basics, but aims for higher. Whether it’s using English words that they don’t understand/can’t spell, or using French… just don’t. It doesn’t make you look fancy or educated. It makes you look uneducated and ignorant, and that is NOT an impression you want to make on anyone.

I hope, anyway.

Also, just so we’re on the same page here, full disclosure: I am a high school graduate. That’s it, that’s all. This rant is not coming as some “I have 4 graduate degrees, so you should all be as educated as I am” rant. This is coming from someone with not so much as 1 hour of post secondary education.  If you graduate high school, I would like to think that you know how to communicate.

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6 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Culinary Schools & Students.

  1. I know nothing about cooking or baking (I burn water), but I do know about English and applying for jobs! It is so horrible that these people have no sense of decent language or etiquette, much less how to present themselves to a potential employer. I weep for humanity. Je parle un peu Francais, aussi.

  2. In total agreement here… back in the day when I was looking for an internship I approached it just as I do now a days when I apply for a job. Research the target, make sure the intro. letter and resume are geared toward the position, etc.

    Part of the point of an internship, in my opinion, is to prepare one for really looking for a job with maybe a little less pressure (i.e. your rent isn’t dependent on it, yet.)

    So yeah, the schools are doing a major disservice to their students and/or the students are being really lazy.

    Good luck!

    (oh and on the ‘stoge’ thing… I’ve taken French in highschool and college, have some minor memory of it and would never have guessed that is what they meant. Again if you can’t find it via Google/Bing then don’t use it.)

  3. Great post.

    I used to be invited to talk to engineering students who were about to graduate at the local U. Have to say that as well educated as they were in engineering, computers, sciences, mathematics, they couldn’t write worth a damn.

    I still mentor kids in highschool who are considering studying Physics (I happen to have sound myself with that degree when I graduated 😯 ) and I recommend additional classes on communications and highlight the importance of being able to write coherently. Hopefully one or two will take my advice.

    Geoff

  4. In high school we were required to learn the basics of putting together a cover letter and resume. I college, those basics were again drilled into us, and the finer points were then elaborated. Even if you never learned how to apply for a job that didn’t come with an application, in this age of technology (and heaven forbid, you can even go “old school” and look at samples in the LIBRARY), if you are unable to find a decent resume/cover letter to use as a template to highlight your own skills/education, you really have no business applying anywhere!

    Oy.

    English-only speakers seem to be the worst offenders to the English language. In my experience, just about every person I have met who has mastered ANY other language is able to speak/write English far better than those who primarily focused on JUST English. Any time I had to proof a paper that I had written, my first choice was always someone who I felt had a decent grasp on the language, so that I wouldn’t have to break down my register into “simple” concepts. As I quickly learned, those ESL friends of mine were by far the most likely to be able to help. Ironic, no?

    I’m just glad to know that typos don’t burn my eyes only.

  5. I love this article/rant! I shared it on twitter and my coworkers and I all read it over our lunch break. It breaks my heart when I see improper grammar use, poor spelling and a lack of basic manners in written exchanges. Granted, I get a little loose with the language on twitter/facebook, when commenting on blogs, and sometimes I’ll use “popular” grammar when doing my own blog posts. Confession: I do take a certain guilty pleasure in ending the occasional sentence with a preposition, ‘cuz that’s where it’s at.

    But there’s not a lot of room for error in cover letters, resumes and post-interview thank you notes (yes, always send post-interview thank you note). If you want to be taken seriously, take your written presentation seriously.

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