Top Chef is moving up the status ladder next season, adding a masters' competition among some of this country's best and most famous chefs. But what about Bottom Chef? How does a young wannabe catch a break? Many of today's stars took the classic route and apprenticed in Europe, which is nice work if you can get it; not always so easy for someone with more passion than opportunity.
Wilma Stephenson, whose efforts are chronicled in the new documentary Pressure Cooker, builds opportunity every day. Stephenson runs a culinary arts class at an inner-city North Philadelphia high school, and she is one of those warrior teachers who simply refuses to cave in. She's far too busy launching graduates who have landed scholarships, internships, and great jobs across the country, from southern California's Border Grill to Charlie Trotter's Chicago-based empire. Attrition rates are somebody else's problem. Her kids graduate. In fact, in a single year, eleven members of her class snagged over $750,000 in scholarships.
Yes, that's an average of over $68,000 per student, in an economy where nobody has any money. As the documentary attests, the kids earn every penny; 'boot camp' is the phrase most commonly used to describe Stephenson's class. It's part of a national effort called Careers through Culinary Arts Program, or C-Cap, created by cookbook author and culinary educator Richard Grausman to provide underserved high school students with the chance to make it in the restaurant and hospitality industry.
Somehow, a documentary about extraordinarily hard-working students hell-bent on building a better life for themselves did not find a theatrical distributor - hope can be a hard sell, I guess - but the small good news is that those of you lucky enough to live in one of eight cities can see Pressure Cooker in limited theatrical release between now and the first week in August. The screening listings are at www.takepart.com/pressurecooker, but New Yorkers should stop reading this immediately and head to the IFC Center, where the run is almost over.
The rest of us will have to wait until the fall, when BET broadcasts the show on television. In the meantime, we can bide our time in entertaining and productive ways. The C-Cap web site showcases stories of alumni who have found not only employment but in some cases romance through C-Cap, like the two grads who have since gotten married. And on a practical level, it provides information both for prospective students and for prospective donors, as well as for teachers who would like to join the network.
If you can't make a big gesture, you can make a small one right in your kitchen, or the next time you go out to eat, one of the easiest do-good and get-involved activities ever: Surf the lists of donors and supporting businesses, which include an array of restaurateurs and food and equipment suppliers, and utilize their products and services, which means you contribute to their profits, which means they can continue to support tomorrow's chefs. If you take your Dad out for Father's Day, check the restaurant list for a C-Cap supporter in your city, and make a reservation for brunch. Or make your favorite brownie recipe with Land O'Lakes butter and Guittard chocolate, mixed together with a Kitchenaid appliance and scraped into the pan with an OXO spatula. All of those companies contribute to C-Cap's support, as do many others. Buy their stuff and help a talented kid catch a break.
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