Directed by JENNIFER GRAUSMAN & MARK BECKER
There’s a force-of-nature behind the door to Room 325 at Frankford High School in Philadelphia. Her name is Wilma Stephenson and she teaches Culinary Arts. Infamously blunt, Mrs. Stephenson runs a “boot camp”, disciplining her students into capable chefs and responsible students. Behind her tough-talking exterior is a teacher, who cares passionately about getting the best out of her students and making sure they receive the opportunities including scholarships to top programs that will help them escape the meager minimum-wage job opportunities of Northeast Philly.
Wilma Stephenson has taught at Frankford for 40 years, long before Culinary Arts became part of the school’s curriculum. She can be cantankerous, and she knows it, but she will do anything for the students who get with the program and show true promise and the hunger to succeed. Those who fall short of her discipline will not be missed; many will drop out before the first week is over.
PRESSURE COOKER documents Mrs. Stephenson and those students committed enough to surrender themselves to her enlightened despotism through both semesters in Culinary Arts. By the end of the school year, 13 of her students will have made it through the gauntlet. These seniors aspire to scholarships that can enable them to escape the status quo of Northeast Philly and move on to a future of more opportunities. Mrs. Stephenson spells it out on the first day of school by telling the newcomers that 11 members of last year’s class earned over $750,000 in scholarships, a staggering amount. At a school where over 40% of students don’t even make it to their senior year, Ms. Stephenson’s class stands in stark contrast. She offers these kids her version of the American Dream: You choose a realistic goal. You work hard. You work the system. And you get out.
At the end of their school year, there is a one-day competition, where top chefs judge the students’ skills and talent. But, in the end, the scholarships are even more dependent on the kids’ capacity for sustained drive throughout their senior year. Can they endure the stressful challenges wrought by their home lives – having to hold low wage jobs after school, and acting as surrogate parents to their siblings – while still finding the motivation to wake up at 6AM to get to Mrs. Stephenson’s class early enough to master their crepes and tournée potatoes?