A different kind of top chef, on her way
What does $100,000 mean to a chef who’s going places? It’s a nice amount of money to invest in your own restaurant, says Graffiato’s Mike Isabella, the sizzling “Top Chef” alum who has more irons in the fire than an Afghan kebab house. “But it’s not close to enough.”
For Jeanine Williams, however, a six-figure sum has delivered a dream to her doorstep. In March, the Roosevelt High School senior won a four-year scholarship to Johnson & Wales University in Denver. That’s $104,000 worth of culinary education, which, as it turns out, doesn’t include room and board. Her federal student aid will make up the difference.
Jeanine lives with her parents and three siblings in a two-bedroom apartment in Anacostia, where views of a better life can be easily obstructed.
“This has given me a brighter future,” says the reserved 17-year-old with short dreadlocks and a sweet, round face, who admits that “it never occurred in my teenage mind that I would have to have money for an education.” She has benefited from the generous support of aunts, uncles and cousins as well as her parents, George Bateman Jr. and Nikisha Williams — particularly her mom, whose enthusiasm for matters of food and cooking should be bottled and sold.
Jeanine has had chef’s work in mind since age 12, but it took a well-established job training initiative to show her the way this year. Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, or C-CAP, has disbursed more than $34 million in scholarships and has taught more than 100,000 students since it began in 1990. C-CAP advisers operate in 176 high schools in seven jurisdictions across the country, including the District and Prince George’s County.
Just about every institution you’d expect to participate does — Le Cordon Bleu in North America, the Culinary Institute of America, the French Culinary Institute, the Art Institutes and New England Culinary Institute, among them — offering full or partial rides to students from low-income families. A-list restaurants, hotels and food-service companies sponsor C-CAP, donate products and provide internships: Red Rooster Harlem and Union Square Cafe in New York, Bobby Van’s Grill in the District, the Four Seasons Hotel, Marriott, Guittard Chocolate and many more.
“C-CAP is an unsung hero of the culinary industry,” says superstar chef-restaurateur and “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio, in an endorsement on the program’s 20th-year commemorative pamphlet. “I salute it for its current and future efforts to bring new talent into our field.”
Long before the students get to compete for prize money, however, they must embrace C-CAP founder and Chairman Richard Grausman’s “recipe for success”:
Show up on time.
Show interest and a desire to learn.
Know basic knife skills, safety and sanitation.
Don’t be afraid to use a mop.
His rules are simple, yet the failure to follow them is one of the two main reasons C-CAP in District and Prince George’s County high schools usually starts an academic session with 65 students and ends up with 14 or 15 who make it to the final competition each spring, according to Yvette Williams, a DC-PGC program coordinator along with her husband, chef Troy Williams. (Failure to maintain the minimum grade-point average of 2.7 is the other.) Jeanine kept a 3.5 GPA and showed a lot of determination and drive as well superb math skills, says Yvette Williams.
Grausman remembers a time not too long ago when any focus on activities such as mopping became a real sticking point for parents and educators of C-CAP students.
“They didn’t want the students to do that kind of work,” he says. “We had to transform that way of thinking.” Then, “when food and chefs got popular through TV, the attitude of parents toward the industry changed. They saw a future and fame.”
C-CAP chef-mentors volunteer their time, spending five hours each week with students at their schools’ culinary labs. “We practiced forever on carrots,” Jeanine says. “I have learned that I should control the knife, and not let it control me.” She doesn’t yet own a set of knives, so her Roosevelt culinary instructor, chef Frederick R. Monroe, let her borrow his for the finals.
Few people can speak to the victories, and misfires, in public school food and nutrition curriculums as authoritatively as Grausman, a native New Yorker mildly astonished to look in the mirror and see a man in his mid-70s staring back. Inspired after attending James Beard’s small cooking classes in the early 1960s and having reinvented himself at age 28 by graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, he followed the path of chef instructor rather than restaurant chef.
The famous school sent him to spread the gospel of classic French technique in America, its flame having faded decades after Julia Child. For 15 years he conducted demos and workshops in department stores nationwide, including Woodward & Lothrop in the Washington area.
Then Grausman aimed at New York’s inner-city schools, where he thought his expertise could make a difference. “I tried to get educators to zero in on teaching skills that were marketable,” he says.
The French connection remains evident today, as C-CAP students must tourne, or turn and trim, vegetables; line a ring mold with even, translucent slices of cucumber; reduce stocks to glazes; build sauces; and produce paper-thin crepes in competitions like the one in which Jeanine and her classmates shined so brightly. She remembers, beaming, that “Mr. Grausman said he loved my crepes” at the March 25 finals, held in Rosslyn at The Art Institute of Washington. Besides her big win that day, 11 other C-CAP students took home more than $153,000 in scholarships and cash awards.
Before Jeanine heads for Denver in August, a new C-CAP job training program will place her in a professional kitchen somewhere in the Washington area. She’ll probably run into a C-CAP alum or two, as many have found their way as cooks and beverage directors. Anacostia High School (’02) and C-CAP/CIA grad Carlton McCoy, 27, worked as assistant sommelier at Cityzen and beverage manager at Sou’Wester in the Mandarin Oriental from 2007 to 2010; now he’s at the Little Nell resort in Aspen, Colo., where he was just named that area’s top new sommelier. He has been invited to take the master sommelier exam this month.
“I was raised by my grandmother. For me, this was the one opportunity I had to go to college,” McCoy says. “I consider Richard Grausman a lifelong mentor. None of this would have been possible without C-CAP.”
Lately, C-CAP mentions have popped up on TV. Grads have taken home top honors on Food Network shows “Chopped: Champions” and “Sweet Genius.” Last weekend, Red Rooster chef-restaurateur and C-CAP board member Marcus Samuelsson earned a final berth on this Sunday’s “Chopped: All-Stars,” where he could win $50,000 for the program. Founder Grausman says he hopes that such high-profile acknowledgments will help with the constant challenge of fundraising to support the nonprofit program.
Jeanine can hardly wait for the next part of her life to begin. Until then, she’ll continue to help cook family meals and repurpose leftovers into lunches for her boyfriend. Her mother volunteered that last bit of information during a cooking session at The Post, and her daughter’s all-business demeanor at the cutting board was interrupted by a sly smile.
“He likes to eat,” she says. “And making food for people makes me happy.”
C-CAP fundraiser June 1
The Careers through Culinary Arts Program for the District and Prince George’s County will hold a fundraising social June 1, 5-8 p.m., at Bobby Van’s Grill, 1201 New York Ave. NW. $20; light hors d’oeuvres, raffle drawings and live music. Proceeds benefit the nonprofit program, which promotes and provides food-service career opportunities for underserved youth through culinary arts education.
To find out more about becoming a C-CAP sponsor, contact C-CAP at 212-974-7111 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeanine Williams and Richard Grausman will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.