Even though 18-year-old high school senior Rebecca Thomas had been preparing for this moment since December, she still felt “sheer panic” when the date for the culinary arts cooking competition arrived. Stakes were high. Winners of the competition would be offered scholarships to some of the country’s most prestigious cooking schools.
Rebecca started cooking for her family when she was 12. It was Thanksgiving, and her older sister’s health prevented her from baking holiday desserts. After receiving compliments for her efforts, Rebecca knew that she wanted to continue cooking and creating in the kitchen. Now her skill and talent would be tested. “Knowing that so much is riding on it is nerve-racking,” she said.
An honor student at Norview High School in Norfolk, Rebecca began taking culinary arts classes during her sophomore year. While cooking is her passion, Rebecca has many other interests. Outside of school, she’s been an active Girl Scout since she was eight and continues to be a role model in Girl Scouts for the younger troops. At Norview she’s a member of the National Honor Society and the National Art Honor Society and is president of her school’s chapter of Family Career Community Leaders of America (FCCLA). She also plays varsity field hockey and swims on Norview’s swim team.
But cooking is what she loves most of all.
Rebecca would be competing in the annual Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP) Cooking Competition for Scholarships Finals. C-CAP is a not-for-profit curriculum enrichment program that helps students who aspire to enter the culinary field. Let’s learn more about C-CAP and the students whose lives it is changing.
A DESIRE TO HELP OTHERS
In 1990, cookbook author and educator Richard Grausman piloted a program in twelve New York City high schools to teach French cooking in home economics classes. His intention was to teach American youth about the satisfaction and value of home cooking. The schools were all inner-city high schools filled with underserved students. Richard soon realized that too many of these students lacked job skills or college prospects. What they needed was preparation for jobs with a future, like those in the culinary industry.
To fulfill this need, Richard created the nonprofit Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP). His goal was to enhance the culinary arts curriculum in public schools and better prepare underserved students for college and career opportunities in the restaurant and hospitality industry. C-CAP has operated continuously for over 25 years and has made a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people.
“C-CAP was founded on my love for French cooking and my desire to help others,” Richard explained. “Little did I know that the combination would change the lives of so many young people. What pleases me most is to see our graduates, with successful careers, giving back in their own way.”
Today, C-CAP operates in seven locations across the country, including Hampton Road. Besides holding cooking competitions for scholarships, C-CAP provides job training and internships, teacher support, college advising, lifetime career guidance, and product donations to classrooms. The organization works with over 150 public high schools, 220 teachers, and 17,000 students annually.
THE FINISH LINE
Rebecca, along with fourteen high school seniors from across Hampton Roads, woke up on February 22, 2017, prepared for battle in a culinary competition that could be a game changer. The results of the competition would determine the path they would take after graduating high school. These competitors were nearing the finish line. They earned their spot in the finals based upon their performance at the preliminary round a few weeks earlier at the Art Institute of Virginia Beach.
The competitors had been practicing for months at their schools with their C-CAP chef-instructor or teacher. They prepared the chicken at home for their families if the budget allowed. If not, they purchased potatoes to perfect the classical tournée technique, which turns a potato into a seven-sided football. The students accepted constructive criticism from their instructors and families to become better and faster at the skills they would need to win one of the scholarship awards being offered, valued at $1,000 to over $120,000.
This year’s C-CAP Cooking Competition for Scholarships would be held at Stratford University Virginia Beach campus. Nervous and excited, the 15 students arrived wearing their professional chef’s attire and carrying their pans and knives. They set up in numbered spaces at the stainless steel tables in the modern, spacious kitchen. Before the competition began, C-CAP’s founder, Richard Grausman, who flew in from NY, offered some sage advice: “Watch your temperature zones. Start strong and finish strong. Keep your workspace clean. Watch cross contamination, and use gloves for ready-to-eat food.”
It was time to begin. The students commenced preparing a two-course French-inspired meal from memory, and they had two hours to complete the meal. The menu included Hunter’s Chicken with tournée potatoes and dessert crepes with pastry cream and chocolate sauce. As the young chefs worked, the sounds of eggs cracking and whisks clinking accompanied the thudding sounds of chopping. The scent of fresh garlic and shallots wafted through the air. As the students prepared the crepes, the air in the kitchen became sweet and buttery. Periodically, someone called out how many minutes were remaining. You could cut the tension with a knife.
Rebecca was one of the winners. Her skills and talents as a chef netted her a full-tuition scholarship at the Culinary Institute of New York at Monroe College, a bachelor’s degree program valued at $54,240. Rebecca also earned a $1,500 C-CAP cash scholarship for other educational needs.
Holding back tears, Rebecca said C-CAP is the only reason she’s able to pursue a career in the culinary field. “We couldn’t afford any culinary school,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere without C-CAP.” Through tears of joy and thankfulness, she continued, “The competition was a confidence boost that other people—besides my chef-instructor, Tia Felton, who cares about me—liked what I do.”
The largest scholarship recipient from this year’s competition was Marissa Ward, who became interested in cooking when her family took in three foster siblings and her family of five became eight. She described her home life as chaotic, so she took over the family dinner responsibilities to help her mother and found that she really liked cooking. Marissa earned a full-tuition scholarship to Johnson & Wales University for the bachelor degree, valued at $121,584.
“C-CAP changed my life!” said Marissa. “It means that I don’t have to worry every day how I’m going to accomplish my dreams or get where I want to in life…C-CAP provided me an opportunity to work for what I wanted and to be where I want in life. It really helped me get there.”
Locally C-CAP students support our community by helping other organizations raise funds for worthy causes. Executive Chef Jesse Wykle of Zoës Steak and Seafood Restaurant in Virginia Beach has worked with C-CAP students and alumni over the years, assisting at events such as the Chesapeake Bay Wine Classic Foundation Grand Auction and Wine, Women & Fishing Tournament Wine Dinner. He’s also hired C-CAP students and alumni to work for him at Zoës. “I have more confidence in a graduating C-CAP student than I do with most college culinary students,” Jesse said. “Learning the true meaning of hospitality through C-CAP at an early age is crucial. Hard working, driven, reliable—all sum up how I feel about these kids.”
C-CAP has supported the Girl Scouts’ annual fundraiser, Samoa Soiree, since its inception. Stacy Nixon, the local council’s philanthropy director, said C-CAP students were a huge help at the recent Samoa Soiree 2017. “They were professional, courteous, and generous with their time—from setting up tables to assisting chefs to event breakdown,” said Stacy. “They are a fantastic partner.”
Tammy Goetz Jaxtheimer has worked in foodservice since she was 12 years old and has been involved with C-CAP Hampton Roads for over 25 years, serving as director of the local program for 13 years. Since 1999 Tammy has written restaurant reviews for The Virginian-Pilot. She has always had a love affair with food and appreciates how it can bring people together—and often heal what ails you.