The 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival Review - Pressure Cooker



This one is going to be so easy. High school kids. Poor neighborhood. A unique culinary arts program that could means scholarships, opportunity… a better life. In one single serving, that is the documentary Pressure Cooker.

Teacher Chef Wilma Stephenson (l) makes sure stundet Erica (r) is picture perfect.

Led by sometimes maternal, often brazen drill sergeant Wilma Stephenson, students at Philadelphia’s own Frankford High School have the chance to learn to slice and dice, peel and sculpt, braise and boil well enough to be able to compete in the coveted culinary trials held by the prestigious Culinary Arts Institute. The film follows the students journey through the school year, from preliminary trials to awards ceremony and ultimately graduation. The entire time, Stephenson rules the kitchen with an iron whisk, and yet she is never short of a cup of praise.


As with most documentaries, it is not the what that keeps the audience interested, but the who and the how. The what may be a high school cooking class and its crazy teacher. But for filmmakers Jennifer and Grausman & Mark Becker, the who emerged as a trio of engaging, intelligent yet underprivileged kids whose futures are tied to their achievements in the kitchen classroom.

Cheerleader, sister, chef

Erica is a senior who found herself living with a father and stepmother that she bearly knew after her own mother “lost it” and kicked her out. As the primary caretaker of her 15-year old blind sister, Erica sees cooking school as her ticket to get away from the strenuous obligations that she has had to assume in her youth; obligations that have caused her to develop clinical depression and anxiety.


Football Player, Cheerlaeding Squad, Chef in training extraordinaire Tyree "Dudley"

Tyree “Dudley” is the man. A football player and on the cheerleading squad, cocksure Dudley has no problem taking cooking classes even though he sees his future as being sports. He understands people get hurt and it is always smart to have a back up, although the culinary arts would take a back seat to international business affairs. He recognizes that Stephenson’s class has taught him discipline and a marketable skill. We as an audience don’t really worry about this guy. There’s no doubt he will make it. But he makes an extremely likable character to follow.

Fatoumata is cooking her way to towards the American Dream

Fatoumata’s story is the stuff documentaries are made of. An immigrant from Mali, Africa, she was sent to live with her father in the United States when she was taken away from her mother. Fatoumata has stories of walking 20 miles for clean water and to attend school twice in a day. She sees this as the land of opportunity and is counting on cooking school, even though her father does not support her in her dreams. Her desperation to achieve and excel resounds in her straight As and her perfectly diced vegetables.

Although the high school seniors featured in the doc are interesting and the filmmaking is well done, for me the reason to go see this film is for the reminder. As Americans, we are often plagued with a sense of entitlement, to the American dream, to getting what we have worked for. All of us could use a reminder that real opportunities are rare and appreciated. Seeing what the opportunity to go to culinary school means to these kids will give you pause, and make you count your blessings.

Making culinary art

Pressure Cooker is part of the Documentary Competition Program for the 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival running now through Junet 29th.



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