Any film with a title like this would have to grab me, but I knew before seeing it that the documentary was not about the cooking pot for which I write recipes.
I first heard about Pressure Cooker through Facebook from the director’s dad, Richard Grausman, whom I’ve known since his book AT HOME WITH THE FRENCH CLASSICS came out in 1988. Soon after, Richard stopped writing cookbooks (although this one is still in print!) and became passionate about making it possible for inner-city kids to become chefs. To this end, he began fund-raising with great determination and set up an organization called C-CAP, Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (www.ccapinc.org) to provide teaching training, scholarships, job training, and career advising.
His daughter, Jennifer, directs this fine documentary (www.takepart.com/pressurecooker) which portrays the nitty gritty of daily life in a Culinary Arts program in a a Philadelphia ghetto high school, where students come from broken homes and shoulder huge responsibilities like caring for disabled siblings and doing all of the household cooking and cleaning.
We closely follow three of the students, but the real hero of the film is the teacher, Wilma Stephenson, who arrives before dawn and never stops. Wilma’s tough-love approach to teaching gives these kids the determination to keep going despite very difficult odds. Like a good therapist, she holds a vision for their future outside of the ghetto even when they don’t see a way out, and acts alternatively as nurturing mother and parental disciplinarian, the latter often with a kind of excessive badgering that made me (and the students) wince.
But mostly it’s her huge heart that bursts off the screen, and the kids see that huge heart shining through the curmudgeonly carapace. At the end of the documentary, we witness a pressure-filled cooking competition after which many of her students receive scholarships (and I had a good cry). These students are currently pursuing their dreams of becoming chefs and perhaps one or two of them will one day open their own restaurants.
It’s a great story, well told, and by extension we all leave the movie remembering how one person can really make a difference. Go Richard! Go Jennifer! Good job!
p.s. If you’d like to offer support or learn more, check either of the websites above.