In Northeast Philadelphia’s Frankford High School, students swipe IDs to gain access to the cafeteria at lunchtime. They pass through metal detectors. Police greet them after school. Forty percent of their classmates will drop out before senior year. So why are Frankford students showing up at school in the wee hours of the morning to tournée potatoes while a teacher screams at them?
Students show up because teacher Wilma Stephenson demands their dedication to culinary arts training, and earns their respect with her expertise and her results. Stephenson’s forty years of teaching experience don’t lie. Although she’s volatile and often harsh, her culinary arts program regularly churns out champions—and with the titles, generous scholarships—in the annual Philadelphia high school culinary competition.
Pressure Cooker follows a handful of seniors—a football player, a cheerleader, and an African immigrant among them—in their training and personal challenges leading up to the culinary competition and scholarship banquet, presided over by expert chefs. These students straddle school, extra-curricular activities, and heartbreaking personal struggles with family obligations and culture clashes. All the while, Stephenson mentors them in the kitchen and increasingly, in their personal lives, even playing matchmaker for prom dates and taking the girls shopping for dresses.
By the time the culinary competitions arrive onscreen, the audience feels as invested in the results as the students, all while enjoying a Food Network-style foodie fix—beautiful presentation of fancy food. After the competition performances and the ensuing scholarship interviews, viewers are rooting more than ever for these kids who have worked so hard for a chance at culinary training or college.
Pressure Cooker makes viewers feel like they’re back in the hallways of high school, but in the best way possible. The jump cuts and percussive, marching-band-like music and football game and graduation scenes tap in to the energy and hopefulness of that time in life, but the directors contrast that feeling with the dark problems these kids have at home. The issues and kids are real-life, though these stories often go untold—African American and immigrant students dealing with urban class issues and race issues, trying to get ahead in a system that’s been unfair to them from the start. They’re lucky to have a high-achieving mentor to help them navigate the system. Kids all over the country would be better off if more people like Stephenson brought their skills back to their own struggling communities.