For students in Wilma W. Stephenson’s culinary arts classes at Frankford High School in Philadelphia, cooking is more than a skill. “It is the key to their futures,” says Stephenson. She’s not exaggerating. In the 11 years her graduating seniors have participated in the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP) Cooking Competition for Scholarships, Stephenson’s pupils have racked up more than $3 million to be put toward paying for college, earning $637,000 in 2009 alone.
“A lot of these kids in the beginning do not see themselves doing much of anything [as a career],” says the 64-year-old schoolteacher. Stephenson explains many don’t even consider education beyond high school. Some come from broken homes; others are accustomed to financial hardship. Yet when they leave her class, many go on to college and careers where they hold titles such as executive chef and pastry chef at restaurants all across the country.
“My students are successful because they have the motivation to succeed; they have that drive,” says Stephenson who has taught at Frankford her entire 41-year career. But their success is also due in part to the impact of the dynamic woman who runs her classroom like a boot camp. Yelling like a drill sergeant, she presents her classes with a laundry list of rules, including: “You have to be on time, you cannot chew gum, and you cannot wear big earrings.”
For some students, her tough demeanor is off-putting at first. “In the beginning I felt intimidated,” admits Lasheeda Perry, a former student. “She was tough, straight to the point, and didn’t take any mess.” As hard as it may have been under Stephenson’s direction, Perry earned an $80,000 scholarship to Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, to study baking and pastry arts. The 24-year-old is now a pastry cook at the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas in Irving, Texas.
But the students also see another side of Stephenson, whose take-no-prisoners teaching style is the subject of a documentary directed by Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker called Pressure Cooker (www.takepart.com/pressurecooker ). They see the side that buys a student a winter coat, the side that gives out her cell phone number so students can call her when life gets complicated outside the classroom, the side that assigns personal essays to her seniors and returns the writings as many times as it takes for the students to acknowledge how past traumas have held them back.
The lessons Stephenson dishes out in Room 325 don’t just pertain to cooking. No topic is off-limits if putting it on the table can benefit students. “I think I learned more from her [than from anybody else] about becoming a woman,” says Perry. But inevitably the conversation always finds its way back to cooking. In competition, students have two hours to prepare a three-course meal and clean up. Stephenson wants her kids to be ready. While some students will walk away from it with enough cash to further their education in the field, all leave knowing the value of hard work, emotional honesty, and discipline. Stephenson is certain that cooking is a way they build pride.
This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.