In 'Pressure Cooker,' a Culinary Arts Teacher Turns Up the Heat
By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Cooking class at Philadelphia's Frankford High School is all about composing salads, sculpting vegetables and weathering teacher Wilma Stephenson, who occasionally boils over. "Get your brain upscale!" Stephenson commands her students, whom she harangues and harasses in the present so they just might have a future.
Stephenson is the irascible star -- there's no way around it -- of "Pressure Cooker," a year-in-the-life documentary about the kids of Frankford's culinary arts class and their teacher, who runs the program the way Rommel ran his desert campaign.
Gordon Ramsay? The abusive TV chef would be reduced to an unhappy puddle of butter by the imperious Stephenson, although in the end she'd probably wipe his nose and buy him a new spatula.
The film, directed by Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker, follows Stephenson's class a semester after her students have won more than $750,000 in scholarships -- at a school where 40 percent of students don't make it to their senior year.
Consistently successful in getting her graduates out of the inner city and into such culinary cooking colleges as the Art Institute of Atlanta, the Culinary Institute of America and Monroe College in New Rochelle, N.Y., she is no-nonsense, all business.
Her manner may be brusque, but her students are responsive. And what you see in the course of the movie is what every educational trash-talker in America says schools should be doing, usually without providing any means to do it.
Often enough, Stephenson, 63, provides the means herself, which can range from money for cooking-school applications to a waiter's white dress shirt for Frankford football star and chef-to-be Tyree Dudley. ("What size is Dudley," she asks a teammate. Answer: "Gigantic?")
As good as she is to her kids, Stephenson admits she was "horrible" to her directors. "We stayed away from her as much as possible in the kitchen," Grausman said, laughing. "When I first went to her to make the film, she signed on, but she didn't really understand what we were going to do. We kept trying to explain it to her, but I don't think she ever really got it. She thought we were going to be there for a couple of days of shooting. Not a couple of days a week for a year."
Stephenson described herself as a person who needs to know in what direction she's headed and what she's supposed to be doing. "I kept asking, and they kept saying, 'Oh, we don't want you to do anything at all. We're just here.' It wasn't until I saw the movie that I said, 'Oh, that's what they were doing.' A couple of times I asked them to just get out."
The hardest part of shooting, said Grausman, was not getting locked out of the kitchen. "At one point, we were told not to come back to Philadelphia for a couple of weeks."
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