The well-done story of a real Phila. cooking class

Chef Thomas Krichel gives pointers to student Fatoumata Dembele, a West African transplant getting straight A's, at Frankford High School.
Chef Thomas Krichel gives pointers to student Fatoumata Dembele, a West African transplant getting straight A's, at Frankford High School.
Posted: June 12, 2009

If the Weinstein Brothers were still flush with Disney cash and running Miramax, the documentary Pressure Cooker would have been gobbled up and turned into a sappy feature. It happened with Small Wonders, the nonfiction portrait of a music teacher in hard-pressed Harlem schools: Presto, change-o, Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep.

So, there's an upside to the cutbacks that have hit Hollywood - and the now-struggling Weinsteins. Audiences can discover the real uplift in a story of high school students inspired to cook - yes, cook - their way to a better future. The phonied-up studio version (Halle Berry as the tough-love teacher Wilma Stephenson?) probably won't happen.

Which is by way of saying that Pressure Cooker - winner of the documentary prize at the recent Philadelphia Film Festival/CineFest - is a heart-grabbing, awe-inspiring work that needs no embellishment. Halle Berry, stay home.

Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman's finely crafted film takes us through the metal detectors at Philadelphia's Frankford High School and into Room 325, where Wilma Stephenson - loud, ornery, but full of love and pride for her students - teaches culinary arts. Dicing and chopping, sauteeing and souffleing, these kids get to school early, train over spring break, and learn to think "upscale!" (as Stephenson barks) in their quest for scholarships that will gain them entry to colleges and cooking institutes around the land.

The obstacles are daunting: Frankford's staggering dropout rate, the students' hard-luck stories, a sense of stasis and entrapment stitched into the fabric of the Northeast Philly neighborhood like the elevated train line that cuts through it.

Pressure Cooker focuses on a group of seniors in their jackets and toques, striving to make the grade - and the scholarship money - as Stephenson counsels, cajoles, and criticizes their cuisine.

There's Erica Gaither, a cheerleader who has suffered through a messy childhood and has responsibility for her blind, physically disabled younger sister. There's Tyree Dudley, all-state star of the Frankford Pioneers, cooking fried chicken for his single mom, and looking at the culinary arts program as a viable career path beyond football.

And there's Fatoumata Dembele, four years in Philadelphia from West Africa, learning English, getting straight A's, dealing with a father who believes that his daughter should be cooking at home, that she shouldn't even be in school.

Pressure Cooker doesn't condescend to these kids, it respects them. And it is respect - and self-respect - that the irascible Stephenson hands her students along with the whisks, the knives, the saucepans and serving trays.


Filmmakers Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker, Wilma Stephenson and some of her Frankford High students, will appear at several showings today, Saturday and Sunday to take questions from the audience at the theater.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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