With a supervisor who doesn't mince words and likes to yell, men and women battling over hot stoves for their big chance, and a ticking clock and other on-camera conventions, Pressure Cooker could be mistaken for a prime-time reality show. But it's actually a "real" story about students in the Culinary Arts program at Philadelphia's Frankford High School, and their struggle to win scholarships to culinary schools in the Careers through Culinary Arts Program, all while juggling difficult home lives, the challenge of growing up, and myriad other stresses.
The center of Pressure Cooker (now available on DVD) is Room 325 at Frankford High School, a school in an area with incomes far below the national median*. That's where Wilma Stephenson, a four-decade veteran teacher, instructs the students in basic culinary technique and prepares them for the citywide scholarship competition. Stephenson is a dynamo: pushing, encouraging, cajoling, providing reality checks, and sometimes acting as a surrogate mother. We follow her students through their senior year of high school, through their quest to make it to the final competition and win a partial or full scholarship to study culinary arts.
The film focuses on three in particular — Erica, Fatoumata, and Tyree, all of whom have major responsibilities outside of the standard high-school classes and activities. Erica is the primary caretaker for her blind sister. Although she's devoted to her, she desperately wants to get out of Philadelphia for a new start: If she goes to a new place, she says, "I'm not the girl who had all those troubles in her younger years because she had to take care of her sister. I'm not the girl whose mom's crazy and her dad wasn't there. They're gonna know me as Erica." Fatoumata, who emigrated just four years ago from west Africa, is responsible for much of the cooking and cleaning and has a controlling father. In her home country, she walked many miles each day to get to school or to collect water, and she expresses amazed gratitude at the bus that takes her to her modern school and at the clean water that flows from taps. Tyree is a star football player with a lot more on his shoulders than football pads – he lives with his mother and several other children, and does much of the childcare and housework.
It wasn't long into the film before I was hoping that the three would succeed. In order to succeed in the long term, however, they will need an economic system that sufficiently rewards hard work, as opposed to the one that let down recent generations in their Philadelphia neighborhood. And so part of the work in reforming the food system goes beyond the farm and market to include efforts to improve conditions and compensation for those who work so hard in the kitchens of restaurants, schools, hospitals and other institutions. These efforts are part of the E in SOLE (for ethical) and the "fair" part of Slow Food's mission of "Supporting Good, Clean and Fair Food."
Directors Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker shot and edited the film in an "anti-reality TV" style -- no quick cuts, dramatic music, suspense-heightening breaks, and narrative commentary. Instead they strip away all but the essential elements, focusing on the students and their teacher in a manner somewhat like the observational work of Frederick Wiseman. Viewers of Pressure Cooker thus might feel a little confused and frustrated with the film: What are they required to cook for the competition? What are the rules? What the heck is going on? But if you have such questions while watching, try to put them aside. The answers really don't matter — what matters is the students and the teacher. Pressure Cooker's straightforward presentation of the students' everyday lives, the stress of the competition, and Stephenson's dedication to her students make for an emotional illustration of what it's like to be young and be striving for success.
Watch the trailer:
More About Room 325 and the Careers through Culinary Arts Program
*Frankford High School is in zip code 19124. The Census Bureau has a fact sheet on the area.
Disclosure: I received a screener DVD of the film from First Run Features to review.