At the beginning of Pressure Cooker, a feature-length documentary making its world premiere on June 21 at the Los Angeles Film Festival, it’s unclear why any right-minded student at Northeast Philadelphia’s Frankford High School would submit to the tutelage of Wilma Stephenson. A barking drill sergeant of a Culinary Arts teacher, Stephenson has a manner so gruff and volatile that it makes for unintentional laughs.
If Pressure Cooker’s first-time co-director Jennifer Grausman, along with Mark Becker, have a certain sympathy for the veteran schoolteacher, it’s because so many of Stephenson’s students have succeeded in the Careers through Culinary Arts program, a nonprofit organization founded by Grausman’s father in 1990 that holds an annual cooking competition for college scholarships. With tickets out of the inner city at stake for her students, Stephenson rides herd over three of her protégés, all from broken families: a hulking all-state football star; a cheerleader who is responsible for taking care of her blind, physically disabled younger sister; and a bashful but sweetly determined teen newly arrived from Mali. Stephenson teaches them professional-level skills like creating perfectly seven-sided potato tournées; slicing cucumbers into precise portions; and expertly flipping crêpes. Somewhere in the midst of watching her instill in the trio the importance of having an articulated palate and a well-assembled mise en place, her badgering loses its hard edge and she becomes a vessel of pure, shining love.
Pressure Cooker opens in New York on May 27 at the IFC Center and in Los Angeles on June 5 at the Sunset 5. For additional screening information, visit takepart.com/pressurecooker.