Chefs Benefiting More Chefs

Last week, I was lucky enough to get a press pass to a benefit at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan honoring Gotham Bar and Grill chef and owner Alfred Portale for his contributions to the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), a charity that helps New York high school students with the drive—but maybe not the money—to learn how to cook.

20080306-ccap.pngTickets started at $450 and went up to $1000, and the room was packed with 600 generous guests, corporate sponsors like Charmer Sunbelt Group and Nestle, and staff from 37 of New York’s top restaurants, offering samples like crudo of ahi tuna topped with Glidden Point oysters, lemon and parsley (Fabio Trabocchi of Fiamma), quince cheesecake with pistachio phyllo (Nancy Olsen of Gramercy Tavern), and squash torelloni with sage, wild mushrooms, and pinenuts (Bill Telepan of Telepan) and pappa al pomodoro (Odette Fada of San Domenico).

But among this rare confluence of Manhattan food movers and shakers, the ambition and drive of one young man was most palpable. Kelvin Fernandez, the 22-year-old executive sous chef at Café des Artistes, is a sort of C-CAP success story. Born and raised in Harlem, Fernandez's primary childhood interest was sports, his broad shoulders and solid build suiting him to high school baseball, football, and wrestling. At 15, he followed a girlfriend into culinary school, benefiting from his first C-CAP scholarship.

“If not for C-CAP, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now,” he said as he seared diver scallops on two portable gas burners. The scallops were joined—to rave review—by a chowder of potatoes, black truffles, and applewood-smoked bacon. Fernandez would eventually go to the Culinary Institute of America on a $20,000 C-CAP scholarship.

As he juggled scallops and bantered with guests, he rattled off what he hopes to achieve in the next few years. “Executive chef by age 25. Own a restaurant by 30, with a cookbook out. Win some James Beard awards along the way.”

Some of the Café des Artistes co-owners stopped by Fernandez's station exchanging kisses and hand shakes and pats on the back. They are longtime donors to C-CAP and were thrilled to learn, when Fernandez joined their restaurant’s staff several years ago, that he was a C-CAP beneficiary.

Strong Support

Such fortuitous examples are not hard to find and partly explain C-CAP’s devoted support by folks like Danny Meyer, Daniel Boulud, Jacques Pépin, Tim and Nina Zagat, and Saul and Stanley Zabar.

“It promotes the industry,” Telepan said. “It’s a huge bonus for the industry. And, at the same time it gives kids who may not be able to go out to eat or be exposed to this world an opportunity to see if they want to join it.”

Joseph Paulino, Kelvin’s boss and executive chef at Café des Artistes, praises the caliber of chefs that C-CAP produces. “These students are not afraid to jump in and get dirty. To sweat. They battle for everything,” he said. “They are a different beast. They don’t develop these big heads like in other cooking schools.”

Since 1990, C-CAP has given out $22 million in scholarships to cooking schools, and helps about 10,000 kids each year get into kitchens as part of classes, internships, and paying jobs. Its reach now extends beyond New York to Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Today, alums like Fernandez regularly teach new C-CAP students and visit New York schools to encourage students to apply to the program—a circle of giving back that top chefs and kitchen novices.

Fierce Competition

The program is no cake walk. It’s incredible selective and grueling, as documented by Jennifer Grausman, the daughter of C-CAP founder Richard Grausman, in her coming film, Pressure Cooker. “Go big or go home,” is how Fernandez summed up many of his C-CAP moments. “You have the pleasure and the pain.” He recounted a C-CAP student contest judged by Boulud in which the first prize was a trip to Paris. Fernandez placed second, impressing Boulud with an unexpected preparation of seared jumbo sweetbreads. “He had never seen someone so young cook sweetbreads,” said Fernandez, who notes that the opportunity to continually learn is what ultimately made him stick with the food world.

“When I’m tired of French, I can do American or Chinese or Japanese,” he said. ”To me, it doesn’t feel like a job.”