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'Pressure Cooker': 'Bon' Opportunities?

June 11, 2009 By:
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If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen ...

Yeah, right, you tell that to Wilma Stephenson.

She filets, sautés and flambés students with that flame-thrower of a tongue she has developed during some 40 years of teaching culinary arts at Frankford High School.

And now, her just desserts: The teacher with crème brûlée bragging rights and boot-camp bark is a movie star, the focus of the excellent "Pressure Cooker," simmering over at the Ritz at the Bourse starting June 12.

Taking part in the acclaimed Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, which "works with public schools to prepare underserved high school students for college and career opportunities," Frankford's Stephenson is a steward of half-cooked dreams, bringing them to a boil -- and more often than not, bringing in scholarships for the inner-city kids she commandeers.

Marking her documentary debut, filmmaker Jennifer Grausman -- father Richard founded C-CAP -- earns her comestible cap and gown for her efforts here, spending a year with Stephenson's class and watching them graduate gastronomically and emotionally.

In the process, the Jewish filmmaker put another docu project on the back burner when she first heard of Stephenson from her dad and others. She quickly arranged to meet up with the teacher at Frankford.

Let's do lunch? Let's do the teacher's commitment proud. "That first meeting, we talked for three hours," recalls Grausman.

Intermixing several students' off-campus commitments with their culinary calls at school, Grausman gets the temp just right.

As for Stephenson ... Chef Ramsay of the Frankford El? Next stop: Margaret-Unorthodox?

"We try not to [liken] it to reality-TV shows," says the filmmaker, shying away from comparing "Hell's Kitchen" with the heavenly space from which teacher and kids carve out dreams at Frankford.

Well, here's something to chew on: If Rocky got in shape pummeling slabs of beef in the freezer at the local market, is this the beef the kids learn to cut and give flavor to?

"There is a similarity," concedes Grausman.

Stephenson, meanwhile, concedes little: demanding, driving, her accent is not on tenderizer but toughness.

But the tough love is marinated in some mellow marvels as she is shown helping students buy their prom gowns, in addition to teaching them such off-the-menu basics as good grooming and caring for one another.

But even sleeping beauties get rude wake-up calls; no slacking off in Mrs. Stephenson's class!

Count the filmmaker among those cut out. "She treated us like the kids," laughs Grausman fondly. "Our crew got expelled from her class for two weeks!"

For chewing gum or chewing scenery? Neither; fortunately, they were allowed back in. And while filmmaking can be a back-stabbing business, at least those knives weren't sharpened first.

"I don't think I would have made it," says Grausman jokingly of the Stephenson culinary cut.

Luckily, for audiences -- and festivals worldwide, including Tel Aviv -- Grausman's own final cut appears locally on screen, where the emphasis is on both bon appétit and, for Stephenson's students, bon opportunité.

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