At the center of Pressure Cooker—the feature-documentary directorial debut of Jennifer Grausman—is a captivating recipe. One that Wilma Stephenson, the longtime culinary-arts instructor at Northeast Philadelphia's Frankford High, knows by heart and whips up year in and year out. One that Stephenson has refined to a curious blend of edification and evisceration. One that has led her students to off-the-charts triumph in the scholarship competitions they dominate annually. And that has garnered Frankford a reputation for—as Grausman says—"not only sports, but cooking, too."
It's a teacher's recipe for success, and Grausman and her film give illuminating access.
After wrapping up her graduate film program at Columbia University, Grausman—a Manhattan lifer, aside from her four years in Durham—began seeking the kind of cooking-in-the-classroom storyline that could carry a feature documentary. Inspired by her father, a cooking writer and educator who studied with James Beard and at Le Cordon Bleu, Grausman chose to focus on an initiative—the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP)—that her father launched in 1990.
Once she had a broad topic in mind, Grausman had to further refine the focus of the film. "I started interviewing kids and teachers in the New York area," she says. "We were finding good people, but it didn't feel like a whole feature. I kept hearing about Wilma Stephenson. And so I went down to Philadelphia to meet her at the end of the school year. There was something about her—she was a character—and there was a story going on in her classroom."
For the next year, Grausman, her codirector, and her crew made the trek from New York several times a week to capture the action. At the beginning of each year, when Stephenson's six classes are filled to the brim with aspirants, Stephenson puts her most terrifying face forward (seriously, go watch the film's trailer) in order to weed out those who aren't entirely committed to the cause. "She completely hazes them," Grausman says.
The same can be said for Grausman and her crew. Despite the all-access arrangements that the filmmakers thought they had made with their subject, "Wilma never really got her head around what we were going to do," Grausman says. "She had this idea that we were coming once or twice a month for a short period. Sometimes we'd get down there, and she'd send us home. We wouldn't be allowed in the kitchen." Grausman began thinking of ways to save the project: "We had to start thinking about filming at other schools, but we knew this was the story, and so we just kept pushing."
And so they did, ultimately arriving at the Los Angeles Film Festival back in June 2008 to premiere the film. The story arc—three of Stephenson's students resist the hard promises of postgraduate inner-city life by honing their gourmet-cooking chops and winning culinary-school scholarships—resonated with the 1,200 public high-school students who attended the first screening. "They treated our kids like rock stars," Grausman says. "They asked for autographs. They wanted Wilma to move across the country to teach them."
Over the course of the following year and a half, Grausman and Pressure Cooker have enjoyed the long tail of the film's run: the Special Jury Prize in L.A.; the Best Documentary Award at the Philadelphia Film Festival; and the Audience Awards at the festivals in Aspen, Colorado; Portland, Oregon; and Berkshire, Massachusetts—to name just a few notable achievements. And now, having at last embraced the quiet of the festival season's end, Grausman is translating her own recipe for writing, directing, and producing success from the documentary genre to the next natural frontier: narrative features.