From the French top gas stoves to the shiny metal cooking stations, everything is meant to replicate the environs of a real restaurant kitchen. The sounds of chopping and oil sizzling are interspersed with shouts of “behind you!” and “hot pan!” as the chefs maneuver around each other. Their eyes are focused intently on their tasks, without a second of distraction.
“Five minutes left, chefs!” As time ticks away, they begin to plate their dishes, carefully arranging the tournée potatoes and wiping the plate surfaces clean. But these young cooks are not on a food reality television show; they are high school students, competing for scholarships to attend culinary programs across the country.
Every year, the nonprofit organization Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP) holds a competition for aspiring chefs attending select New York City public high schools. It provides mentoring, job training, and internships. An elite group of students is chosen to enter the scholarship competition, based on teacher nominations, a preliminary competition, and academic record.
The competition is the culmination of months of practice, inside the classroom and after school.
C-CAP President Susan Robbins said the organization exists to help students, many of whom come from disadvantaged homes, develop their careers and learn as much as possible about the restaurant industry.
On competition day, she hopes they will shine so that the chef judges will hand them each a business card. “Each student shows that they can get an entry-level job in the kitchen,” she said.
After an interview and review of their competition performances, the students are awarded partial or full scholarships to top culinary schools such as the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), the International Culinary Center, and Johnson & Wales University (worth over $670,000 in total).
C-CAP founder Richard Grausman said he assesses through interviews what the students are passionate about, and then C-CAP matches them with a school that can best fit their aspiration. “We want them to pay for their education as little as possible,” he said. “We don’t want them to go into debt, in this industry that doesn’t pay a whole lot.”
It was on a morning in late March that the competing students filed into kitchens at ICE to cook two classic French dishes: hunter’s chicken with tournée potatoes (cut into an oblong shape with seven sides), and dessert crepes with pastry cream and chocolate sauce—all within a two-hour limit.
The chef judges included Ashley Abodeely of The NoMad, Giovanna Alvarez of Asiate, Aaron Bludorn and Cesar Gutierrez of Café Boulud, Philip DeMaiolo of Pier Sixty, Krystal Lewis of The Spotted Pig, Paige Nebrig of Bouchon Bakery, and Braden Reardon of NYY Steak.
Lewis, who is a C-CAP alum, recalled how nervous she was eight years ago as a student in the competition, preparing the same dishes. “You dive in head first, but then slow down toward the middle. You just have to try and keep a level head and stay focused,” she said.
Lewis and the other judges (including Robbins, Grausman, and ICE instructor Ted Siegel) walked around the stations, observing the students and giving them tips on how to improve. Lewis said she was looking at the fluidity of their movements to gauge their confidence—a critical trait inside the kitchen. “[I’m looking at] the sequence of events, what they do first, if they know their next move.”
As for the dishes, she will judge whether the chicken was cooked to the right texture (crispy skin, juicy meat), the right amount of viscosity in the sauce (not too thick), and how well they make the pastry cream (smooth and not too sweet).
At the end of the competition, she and other chefs gave parting words of advice to the students. Lewis encouraged the young cooks to grab every opportunity to learn from their mistakes. “Grow more, and like a lobster, your shell will get harder,” she said.
A week later, the results were announced at a ceremony held at The Pierre Hotel across from Central Park. Parents, teachers, C-CAP board members, alums, and other supporters celebrated the big day with the students. Tears flowed freely, even as the young chefs tried to smile for the camera.
Miguel Lora, from the High School of Hospitality Management, won a full-tuition scholarship to ICE. As a young boy, Lora recalls helping around the kitchen for the big Thanksgiving dinner—and especially with his favorite dish, lasagna. But it wasn’t until his sophomore year that he started taking culinary classes and seriously considered a career as a chef.
For Lora, who currently works part time at Salvation Taco, challenges in the kitchen motivate him to keep going. “It’s the process of learning and failing. When I fail, it’s so disappointing because I know I could do better. But at the same time, it’s so enjoyable because each time, I’m improving a little bit more,” he said. “It’s hard to accept failure, but it also feels good to take that failure and turn it into strength.”
Darlene Reyes from the Food and Finance High School decided early on that she wanted to become a chef. “I never pictured myself in an office, sitting as a secretary looking at a computer screen all day,” she said. “I like interacting with people and making people happy with my food.”
With a full-tuition scholarship to Monroe College’s culinary program, Reyes will be the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree. She names her teachers as her biggest role models, including chef instructor Michael Lynch. “He helped me get here. He trained me everyday after school for C-CAP. He’s taught me not only things in the kitchen, but life lessons and advice that I really appreciate—never give up, always keep striving.”
She hopes to one day open a restaurant or bakery of her own. After receiving her award, Reyes teetered off the stage in her glamorous high heels and joined her family for celebratory photos, all while fighting back tears.