Nerves almost got the best of Abria Goldsmith during her first cooking competition over the winter. Her hands shook, her mind was scattered, and she struggled to finish on time. Determined to make sure her training would get her through the next round, she prepared for the finals by cooking endless plates of chicken.
"I practiced for two weeks straight," said Goldsmith, an 18-year-old senior at North Philadelphia's Murrell Dobbins CTE High School. "I tournéed, like, 45 potatoes. I wanted to get to where I didn't have to think about what I was doing."
Last month, Goldsmith competed against 18 other high school students for scholarships to local and national culinary schools in the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), a nonprofit that has trained aspiring chefs around the country for more than 25 years. This week, Goldsmith was awarded a full-tuition scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
Founded in 1990 in New York by teacher and cookbook author Richard Grausman, the program aims to prepare underserved students for careers through chef mentoring, field trips, work experience and training, and college and career advising. The program has produced thousands of graduates, including a handful of local chefs.
In Philadelphia, 1,000 students in 17 schools participate in C-CAP, training for months in kitchen skills, sanitation procedures, time management, and more. The program culminates with the annual competition, held this year in the kitchens of the Art Institute of Philadelphia. At a breakfast event at the Union League of Philadelphia this week, all students were awarded partial or full scholarships to schools that included the New England Culinary Institute, Johnson and Wales University, and the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill.
Even as televised competitions like Chopped have ushered in a growing national interest in cooking, applications to culinary arts programs have declined. Programs around the country have closed in recent years due to rising tuition costs, less federal aid, and an increase in training programs run through restaurants.
But Keri Fisher, program director for the local branch of C-CAP, said the program continues to grow because it offers the resources to set students on a straightforward career path. Students who complete the job-training program can be rewarded with internships at top establishments, and culinary programs at area schools like the Community College of Philadelphia offer affordable degree programs.
And though the city's food scene has gained national recognition in recent years, Fisher said most students start out relatively unaware of any such hype.
"It's the passion for food that drives them, not the promise of celebrity or fame," she said. "I've never had a student come in and say they want to be the next Marc Vetri or the next Jose Garces. They may not even know who they are."
To qualify for the final competition, contestants competed in a preliminary contest. For the final, students were given two hours to prepare two French dishes, savory and sweet: chicken with potatoes and sauce made from shallots and herbs, and crêpes with chocolate sauce and pastry cream. Contestants prepared two plates of each; the prettier plates were judged on presentation only, the other solely on taste. Judges included chefs, C-CAP alums, and industry professionals who scored the dishes on a range of criteria.
Theo Charitos, a judge who won a scholarship to Rhode Island's Johnson and Wales through the program, said the glamour-free competition prepares students for the grueling work required to be a chef.
"You have no idea what it entails until you start doing it," said Charitos, owner of the Red Cedar Grille in Colmar. "To this day, I work seven days a week. If you love it, if you're passionate, you don't mind. But these kids are seeing what it takes."
As students stirred and chopped, Charitos offered suggestions when he could; tips that wouldn't change the outcome of the contest but might help students work more efficiently. "One of the things I tell them is to try and relax," he said. "You know what you're doing. Don't get overwhelmed."
After winning the competition as a teenager, Charitos apprenticed at the Four Seasons, then worked at Davio's steak house and the Troeg's Brewery in Hershey, Pa.
"The kids I talk to look at it as an opportunity," he said. "The system works, and the program will always be able to provide a viable career path."
Jocelyne Guzman, a senior at South Philadelphia High School who came to the city from El Salvador at age 11, said she dreamed of having a career as a chef, perhaps in an Italian restaurant. At the competition, she presented her chicken with the sauce on top, her crêpe rolled elegantly with chocolate drizzled across the plate. With 18 minutes to spare, she began cleaning her station.
"My goal is first to study, get my bachelor's," said Guzman, who this week won a scholarship to the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College. "Cooking, it's like an art."
After finishing, Goldsmith said she was happy with how her food looked and tasted. She said she dreamed of someday opening her own restaurant. But she acknowledged she'd only begun to develop her palate; her current passion is Japanese food, but she has yet to taste most of the world's food.
"I see this as a big opportunity for me," she said. "I really care, and that's why I worked hard to get ready. I practice my craft because I really want to succeed."