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Needs More Paprika

By Brian Prisco | Film | June 22, 2009 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | June 22, 2009 |

Anyone can cook. Most people can take some basic ingredients, chop and season, and turn it into a meal. A select few are able to add extra spices, use finer ingredients, and mix and mash them in such a way that the result is worthy of chef's knives. Pressure Cooker, a documentary from Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman about a group of Philadelphia high school culinary arts students, has all the eggs and flour, but the cake's not gourmet. It's entertaining and about a worthwhile subject, but it lacks intriguing characters or any sort of drama. There's nothing going on here that couldn't have been covered in a particularly informative YouTube video or a Facebook meme. Yet I feel like people should watch this film because people should be informed about C-CAP (Careers in Culinary Arts Program). Granted, while Pressure Cooker may be supermarket quality baked goods, that shit still tastes good.

Teacher Wilma Stephenson rules Frankford High School with an iron skillet. She's a recipe for disaster: One cup Gordon Ramsey, a half stick of Judge Judy, and Tyra Banks to taste. (Substitute Oprah if you're allergic.) For several years, she's run the culinary arts classroom at the inner-city high school, berating and shrieking at the students to get the best out of them. She chases a kid out the door for slamming it, raising all hell, demanding he come back and shut the door like a normal person. But she also takes the kids out to the Macy's sale and buys them prom dresses. She loves all of her students, wanting them all to have the opportunities to get out of their "ghetto mentality." But make no mistake, she also wants them to succeed because she wants Frankford's culinary program to win all the citywide scholarships and awards. She wants bragging rights, and she doesn't care if that makes her out to look like a semi-insane harpy.

Most of the film deals with the students preparing for the major culinary arts competition in Philadelphia, which will earn most of them much needed scholarship money to get them the hell out of the city of Philadelphia. The documentarians choose to focus on three of the students, but really, it could have been any of the kids. Wilma's kids have been taking the top prizes for years. The previous year her students took home over $750,000 in scholarship money. During the preliminaries, all 13 of her students move on to the next round. The filmmakers go the reality television route, finding the three most creatively enticing "crying into the camera" tales, and so we're following Erica, Dudley, and Fatoumata. Erica's a cheerleader who takes care of her blind sister. Dudley's an all-state tackle -- a jock who cooks. Fatoumata is an African immigrant with an overprotective father. Each one is given a cursory get-to-know-you story arc, like a participant on "American Idol" who the producers figure will get fingers dialing by pulling heart strings.

The real thrust of the film seems to be highlighting the C-CAP program, which offers almost a million dollars in scholarships every year to inner city students who now have a chance to go on to higher education. Frankly, you'd have to be some sort of heartless ghoul not to tear up when awards are handed out at the end and you can see the real change the money will have. And yes, this money isn't going to cure cancer or take drugs off the streets, but will give a handful of poor kids the opportunity to make a kickass vichysousse. They're getting money to pursue degrees in a field that is viciously competitive with no guarantee of jobs upon completion. Most of their classmates' futures involve hopefully getting managerial positions at the Targets or Best Buys in Philly. But Pressure Cooker doesn't worry about the final answers. It just wants you to see how the C-CAP changes lives.

Pressure Cooker dances around major issues without delving. All of the kids cook for their working-class families, and it's fried foods. We see these culinary artisans using a fry-o-lator, dropping fishheads into scalding oil, and bragging about their smothered pork chop recipes. Minorities are twice as likely to suffer from early adult onset diabetes or stroke from high blood pressure due to poor diet. Or how the African girl Fatoumata is forbidden from attending prom because of her father's dominance. She has an opportunity to go to the best culinary arts school in the nation but will not consider it because her father does not want her to stray too far from home. Yet, nobody worries about this. Nobody interferes with the affairs or bad behaviors of others in the film; they just leave it alone and abide in their own ways.

Pressure Cooker is a sweet film because you can see how much this program matters to both the students and their teacher, but ultimately it's all empty calories. The purpose of Pressure Cooker is to show people that there's a program that gives money to poor black kids to go to cooking school. While the program is excellent, there's no real need for an entire documentary about the kids who win the most every year, year after year. I'd suggest going to this website to learn more about the C-CAP program and to hopefully give a little money to them. Because it is a truly excellent program. But don't sweat missing this one. You can get your sustenance elsewhere.

Brian Prisco lives in a pina down by the mer-port of Burbank, by way of the cheesesteak-laden arteries of Philadelphia. Any and all grumblings can be directed to priscogospel at hotmail dot com.

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