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"Together with the teachers, we help to change the lives of many at-risk students. Being able to do so is powerful and extremely rewarding."
Careers through Culinary Arts Program, otherwise known as C-CAP, is a school-to-career program linking public high schools to the culinary industry by means of scholarships, mentoring, and endless forms of support for those teens passionate about food service without the proper tools or means to enter the industry. It has, and continues to, help the next generation of America's great chefs rise and achieve their culinary dreams.
Richard Grausman is the founder of C-CAP, as well as a cookbook author and culinary instructor. He has won the nation's highest honors for his work, including the James Beard Award for Humanitarianism. We chatted with him and C-CAP Alumni Alfred Stephens about the organization.
Richard Grausman, C-CAP Founder
What is C-CAP's mission?
Careers through Culinary Arts Program's mission is to promote and provide career opportunities in the food service industry for under-served youth, through culinary arts education and employment. In essence, we work with public high schools' culinary arts teachers to help them make sure their students are given the basic skills needed for entry-level jobs in the food service industry. We encourage those students who are prepared for college to apply, and we provide competitions and scholarships to motivate them.
How did C-CAP come to be?
I was on a national book tour with At Home With The French Classics when I saw a need to expand the palate of America. To do this, I knew I would need to get into schools. I wanted to teach elementary school children about a broad range of fruits and vegetables while teaching them how to use all their senses. Sensory evaluation of food would be the pathway to good nutrition. In middle school, foods from around the world could be used to teach history, geography, and an understanding of social differences. In high school, if a student had a palate and a passion for the food industry, it would not be hard to prepare him or her for a successful career.
Believing my book was written at a high school reading level and knowing that the Home Economics (now called Family & Consumer Science) curriculum was in need of help, I went to the New York City Board of Education and suggested that my book could be used to upgrade some of the courses being taught. The board members liked the idea, but they didn't have any money. Then on a visit to one of their schools, I discovered that not only did the teachers need to improve their basic skills, they also needed product and equipment for their classes. To make my idea work, I knew I'd need help—and so C-CAP was born.
How did you get the mentors to come on board?
Shortly after visiting classrooms to demonstrate some of the techniques in my book, I realized that these students knew nothing about the food industry, or what it took to prepare for and obtain employment. When I started a program in Washington, D.C. (the year after New York) I knew that I could not go into all the schools myself. So I turned to the American Culinary Federation chapter in Washington, D.C., to help me.
From that point on, I reached out to chefs in each city to visit schools, mentor, and offer jobs. Good chefs, by nature, want to give back, so it was natural for them to help. Today, we use their participation in a variety of ways.
What made you decide to teach at Le Cordon Bleu?
When I went to Paris to learn to cook, it was to enable me to open a small restaurant in New York City where the menu would change daily. I learned fairly early on that although I was a good cook, I was too slow to become a good chef. I just thought too much about what I did, and didn't really want to push myself to work faster. Knowing the careers of people like James Beard, Michael Field, and Dione Lucas, I set my sights on becoming a teacher and food writer. Getting the opportunity to teach and represent Le Cordon Bleu gave my career a quick start.
You have been dubbed one of the best teachers in the business. What do you think makes a great teacher?
While learning to cook in Paris, I constantly examined how and why things were done in a certain way. This was not the way I was being taught, for the French taught in an apprentice system fashion to pass on knowledge and techniques. You were taught to do as the chef instructed—and to not ask questions. My mind needed to know why. Understanding the how's and why's, and being able to communicate them to an audience, allowed me to become a good teacher.
Your organization helps more than 10,000 students every year and you have been awarded the highest distinctions for volunteer service. What would you say is the most rewarding part of what you've achieved with C-CAP?
Together with the teachers, we help to change the lives of many at-risk students. Being able to do so is powerful and extremely rewarding.
If you had one piece of wisdom for aspiring chefs who are struggling to make their way in the culinary world, what would it be?
Stay out of debt, so that you can afford to work in this industry that doesn't pay much to start. And always seek to work in good kitchens, with good chefs who can teach you what you need to learn in order to succeed.
What are the biggest obstacles you are facing right now in terms of C-CAP's development?
Funding and some changing policies in education.
Where would you like to take C-CAP next or in the future?
I would like to see government leaders and educators accept the fact that high school students need to be prepared to start at the bottom of any career ladder, and be given knowledge on how to climb that ladder. The message that schools currently give their students is that with education, you won't have to start at the bottom. The message that schools should be giving is that although everyone needs to start at the bottom, with education you'll be able to rise to the top and do so faster.
False or unrealistic expectations result in negative attitudes and prevent many students from ever getting their start. If this slight change can be made, students all across the country will be better prepared and willing to start at the bottom to work to the top. If that happens in my lifetime, I will be able to turn my attention to other areas of education.
Alfred Stephens, C-CAP Alumni
Alfred Stephens is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute and currently the Corporate Pastry Chef at The Olives Group. In the past, he has delighted New York's dessert fiends at Mesa Grill and at the Glazier Group restaurants.
Tell us of the story of how you first got involved with C-CAP.
My high school teacher, Terry Mathis, told me about a program that awarded kids scholarships if they were interested in the culinary field. My only other passion in life, besides cooking, was to be a sportswriter for a major New York area newspaper. I sat down to compare my options, and realized that to become a sportswriter, I would have to make my way up from smaller media outlets before I could come back to a major one (like New York), and then hope to land a sports job in someone's news room.
Or, I could pursue cooking and have a resource like C-CAP with full scholarships at the tip of my fingers. I went for the sure thing—cooking, which actually was my second choice at the time.
What's the most important thing you come away with from the experience?
I saw so many top chefs at the C-CAP events helping out kids like myself. I thought that was such a cool thing to do considering they already worked long hours in kitchens everyday. I wanted to be just like them when I became established later in my career. My teacher, Terry Mathis, arranged a two-month internship for me and another student in the kitchen of Le Cirque. At the time, Jacques Torres was still in charge; that's what really blew me away and sent me down the path of pastry.
You've had contact with some of the greatest minds in the culinary world. Who was your most influential mentor?
I would say all of them, because no one great chef had all the answers. That's the beauty of the culinary industry. That's why we go out to eat. You go to certain restaurants because they do something so much better than anyone else, be it one or two dishes. That's what I took away from every chef I've ever worked with or come into contact with when traveling.
What's an average day like as the corporate pastry chef of The Olives Group?
I've got the proverbial pencil pusher's title, but I like to keep it real everyday by getting my hands dirty in the kitchen. Most days in the kitchen I'm still very involved with production and working service at night. My day can start around 10 or 11 a.m. in the morning and usually ends around 11:30 p.m. or midnight. Three meal shifts—breakfast, breads, production—as well as banquets in the hotel, keep me pretty occupied most days. Now, with the addition of the food hall in the Plaza Hotel, I'm in charge of bringing Todd English's Curly Cakes to the masses.
Are you still involved with C-CAP? And if so, have you worked closely with any of the current high school students?
Yes, I've taken the role of mentor when called upon. I've been going to the C-CAP benefits for the past 10 years, hosting my own dessert table. Seeing the same faces for 10 years, I've gotten to know so many people who have given to the benefit. They have become a sort of fan base, waiting for my next dessert as well as reminding me to bring back old favorites.
It's pretty cool to have people like your food. It's always the ultimate compliment. When Richard Grausman has some students who he wants me to give a piece of advice to or prep some students for the competition, he sends them my way. I try to make C-CAP the first place I call whenever I'm looking for pastry cooks. I'm always looking to light a fire under the next generation of chefs, especially since we all had similar backgrounds in some way or another.
Do you have any tips for young people who may be considering a career in food?
I've loved food my whole life without realizing that it was something I could do for a living. I was always in the kitchen with my mom, watching her or helping prepare meals, wishing for her to leave me alone to do it all because I wanted that challenge. What the next generation needs to do is to forget what they see on TV. It's never as glamorous as they make it out to be.
I remember days of prepping on top of garbage cans because there was never enough space, or sweating it out in 95-degree kitchens. But if you put in the work, it will pay off. I know it sounds cliche, but while the culinary world may seem large, it is quite small in some respects. After you work for at least three years, you're going to have friends you started out with move onto bigger and better things, and those friends are going to need a chef or pastry chef.
And don't forget—with a strong work ethic, you will catch the eye of your chef and get promoted from within your company. Or the friends you used to work with will remember to call on you, because they know you cared about your business—you came to work and rocked out what you needed to do, and never complained about a shift or the work. Your work ethic and the relationships you form go a long way in this industry.
List and describe one of the creations you're most proud of.
Wow, there are so many. But one of my recent favorites is this play on carrot cake. My approach to dessert is pretty simple. I go grocery shopping and hang out in the Lil Debbie's candy aisle and think about how I could recreate or incorporate that flavor into a dessert. I figure that most people have a childhood favorite candy. One of my personal favorites is Werther's original butterscotch candies. I wanted to recreate the flavor naturally, but could never get it to taste like the original, so I pretty much cheated. I purchased the butterscotch candies, dissolved them, and turned them into a sorbet. I paired the sorbet with a butternut squash cake that I make in the way I would make carrot cake, but I substitute butternut squash for the carrots.
I also wanted to make a cream cheese frosting (without all the sugar) to pair with the butternut squash cake to give the illusion of a classic carrot cake, so I made a crustless New York-style Junior's cheesecake. I baked it in sheet pans, chilled it, then threw it into a Kitchen Aid mixer and whipped it until it was a smooth, slightly sweet, cheese puree. Using a pastry bag equipped with a rose tip, I piped the cheese puree into a beautiful cheesecake ribbon on the plate.
And to tie all the flavors together—the butternut squash cake, the sweet caramelized butter sorbet, and the salty thick paste of cheesecake—I used a thin disk of white truffle custard I fashioned from white truffle puree that is buttery and earthy in flavor. It's a crowdpleaser. The truffle aspect is unexpected, but works beautifully with the other flavors on the plate.
How To Get Involved With C-CAP
C-CAP's greatest need is to increase funding, so anyone who can and is interested in making a contribution can simply go to their website and donate online. Chefs who are interested in getting involved can offer shadowing opportunities, summer and year-round jobs, mentoring in the workplace, and class visits.
Product donations for the schools are always welcomed and food-related auction items valued at $1,000 or more are always needed for our Benefit Auction each year.
You can also support by ordering a DVD copy of Pressure Cooker, a very inspiring documentary about one of our teachers in Philadelphia and what she does to motivate her students to succeed.