COOKING UP A FUTURE Culinary program lets city students sample food careers.

Posted: June 19, 2008

FOR TERRICK Dorsey, it's an escape from homelessness and life in a shelter. For Dajanee Colbert, it's probably the only way she'll ever see college. For Gloria Rentas, it means she'll be the first in her family to graduate high school.

Cooking is a way out of poverty - and into a life they'd never dreamed possible - for many of the inner-city students who take culinary classes at their high schools in the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program.

"I want someone who comes after me to look at my story and say, 'He was just like me, I know I can make it, too,' " said Dorsey, a soft-spoken teen who lives by himself in a Germantown shelter to avoid a life on the streets. This August, the C-CAP student - scholarship in hand - leaves for the New England Culinary School in Vermont.

C-CAP has been training students for culinary careers in Philadelphia public high schools for more than a decade. Currently, there are programs in 17 Philly high schools.

The New York-based organization has a twofold mission: Teach inner-city kids the art of classical French cooking and award hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships at an annual cooking competition so talented students can pursue their passion at culinary schools. Any city student is eligible to take part in the program.

Nearly 900 Philadelphia kids took the culinary classes this year in grades 10, 11 and 12, and dozens of seniors walked away with a total of $624,000 in scholarships to culinary schools such as the Art Institute of Philadelphia, Johnson and Wales and Monroe College.

While some students scored $2,000 toward their first year's tuition, others netted $40,000, $60,000 and even $80,000 - a full ride.

"We have some great success stories here," said Philly's C-CAP program coordinator and chef Wilhelmina Bell, who works with district teachers to administer the C-CAP curriculum. "Some of these kids at first come to culinary arts [classes] to have something to eat in the morning because they couldn't get breakfast at home. They come for a lot of different reasons. And they end up loving it."

An epiphany

C-CAP began in 1990 in several New York City public schools, the brainchild of former chef, author and culinary teacher Richard Grausman.

Grausman graduated from the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and taught there for years before writing a cookbook and working as a chef instructor in the food industry.

He had an epiphany after attending an International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in the mid-'80s, where chefs discussed the grim future of cooking. The prediction was that the art of preparing food would soon be lost. Families wouldn't eat together and fast food would be commonplace. No one would have time to use their kitchens.

"I left that conference quite depressed," C-CAP's founder and head said recently.

Grausman decided that reaching out to high-school students to teach them the beauty of classical French cooking might help save the culinary arts.

"I was 52 years old and a lightbulb went off in my head," Grausman recalled. "I said, 'If there is anything you could do in the latter part of your life to change that grim forecast, what would it be?' I realized the answer was get into the schools to teach."

Grausman approached New York City's Board of Education for permission to speak with home-economics teachers in the district. He visited classes and saw students had no cooking equipment and little direction or funding. Teachers were buying supplies such as flour with their own money.

"I went back to the office and started calling manufacturers I'd gotten to know over the years - Calphalon, Cuisinart, Wusthoff. They all said . . . they wanted to help."

Soon, Grausman had furnished supplies and equipment to 12 New York high schools.

Then, he had another brilliant idea.

At the end of that first year, he decided to hold a cooking competition, convincing local businesses to donate scholarship money for the winners. "We gave out $25,000 that first year, all from donations from organizations or individuals," he said.

When Grausman's story hit the national news, a school in Washington, D.C., approached him.

Within five years, Grausman had trained teachers in classical French cooking at schools all over the country. These days, C-CAP helps provide classes for 10,000 to 12,000 sophomores, juniors and seniors in 200 schools from New York to D.C., Philadelphia, Norfolk, Va., Chicago, Phoenix and Los Angeles.

About $3 million in scholarship money is distributed to about 300 of those students each year.

"When I stop and think about it, I have to pinch myself," Grausman said. "I am glad I had the ability to affect [students] through teaching."

Cooking up miracles

Students who sign on for culinary training often do so as a last resort. Perhaps their grades are slumping in traditional subjects or, desperate for college money, they're drawn to the scholarships enough to tie on an apron.

"I told one of my teachers, 'I want to go to college,' " said Edison High School culinary graduate Gloria Rentas. "She said I should do C-CAP. Now this is my dream. I want to open a restaurant one day and put my family in the business."

Chef instructor Ernest Varalli heads classes at the Franklin Towne Charter School in the Northeast, where he's seen many kids turn their lives around with the program.

"You have to understand where these kids are coming from," said Varalli, co-owner of the Center City restaurants Sotto Varalli and Upstares at Varalli's. "But they are excited when they get here. Some are squeamish around the food, but they get used to it."

After three years in the program, working for two hours a day, in addition to their regular subjects, on everything from knife skills to sauteing to baking, it all comes down to the C-CAP scholarship competition senior year.

Seniors begin to prepare in the fall of senior year, when culinary teachers assemble the seniors' portfolios and send them to C-CAP headquarters in New York. The portfolios include the students' class resume, photos of their creations, report cards and a written paper.

Based on these portfolios, students are chosen to compete in the national C-CAP Cooking Competition for Scholarships, a two-hour contest which this spring, was held at the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College.

"We trained every day at 6 a.m. for two months for that competition," said Frankford High School grad Michael Rotimi. "We practiced it a million times."

Students had to make crepes, roasted chicken and other dishes from memory to impress chef judges. This year, nearly two dozen Philadelphia students cooked up winnings for college.

One of the big winners was Terry Goggans, 17, a Frankford High School graduate who won $80,000 toward Monroe College's culinary program in upstate New York. No one was more surprised that Goggans. He didn't join the program until senior year - after having never entered a kitchen in his life.

"Now I'd like to go into business management," he said. "I think this is a great program. There are so many opportunities for scholarships."

Frankford's Dajanee Colbert won the second-highest award, $60,500 toward an International Art Institute scholarship.

"I am so grateful, I don't know where I would be next year," Colbert said. "This is such a weight off my shoulders."

Fayann Rogers, also from Frankford, earned $34,400 toward her education at Monroe. Without the money, she doesn't know if she'd be going anywhere.

"My mom is a single mom with three kids and she is out of work," said Rogers, of the far Northeast. "She is so proud of me. Without this . . . I have no idea how I would afford college." *

E-mail April Lisante at

Many of the C-CAP scholarship winners will head off to college without so much as a suitcase - not to mention school supplies and even clothing. To make a donation to the local winners, go to

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