Ariel Rogers looked for all the world as if she was the only person in the room. Never mind the other high school seniors, the nervous parents with cameras, the teachers, the hovering professionals who watched and graded her as she pared potatoes into little football-shaped pieces.
Her future was on the line, and Rogers, 17, was determined to keep her nerves at bay for the two hours she had to compete for a culinary school scholarship. She had practiced this food, and she'd been cooking since she "could push a stool up to the stove."
Rogers was among 34 students, some with the prom looming that night, who had carried their knives and cutting boards and other equipment to the kitchens at the International Culinary School at the Art Institute in Santa Monica early on the last Friday in May to prepare what they fervently hoped would be the best chicken with mushroom sauce and crêpes with vanilla pastry cream of their young lives.
"I'm really nervous," said Jose Yepez, a senior at Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley who dreams of going to Johnson & Wales University. "What if this one time? . . . I don't want to think about it."
By lunchtime, each had made two plates of the chicken and two of the crêpes: one set for the judges to taste, the other for presentation. Just a little bit of food, but those plates would help decide whether they would get the chance to go away to college.
The 34 students would, three days later, collect more than $590,000 in scholarships through the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, or C-CAP, a nonprofit organization that works with students in several U.S. cities.
Work the room
But first, the final competition. C-CAP's founder, teacher and author Richard Grausman, advised students to taste their food as they worked and to move fast, an important asset in professional kitchens. "Make it a little uncomfortable for yourselves," Grausman said.
Divided into two kitchens, mostly wedged four to a station, all dressed in white chef's jackets and paper hats, the students started to distinguish themselves from the first minutes.
Yepez's classmate, Oscar Melendez, 18, lined up his knife and measuring spoons on a green towel adjacent to a green cutting board. Melendez has taken culinary arts classes at Mission College in Sylmar, and in May placed third in a national teen cooking competition. To the end, he was composed, efficient and precise.
Nearby, Rogers, from Manual Arts, began with the hardest task for most of the students, "turning" those potatoes, a demanding technique intended to produce pieces uniform in size and shape. These would be sauteed and placed with the chicken. She bit her lip, cradled a potato and began to cut.
"The kids hate it," said William O'Neill, a private chef and one of the judges. "Everybody worries about the potatoes."
Others began with the pastry cream that would go into the crêpes. Kayla Broom, a 17-year-old senior at Dorsey High School, took the tarragon for the chicken from its bag. They had all practiced before school and after, at home and in class. Soon perspiration spread along the paper bands of some of the boys' toques.
"Everybody does know what they're doing," said Alejandro Henriquez, a volunteer at the final competition.
A year ago, Henriquez was among the competing students; he won an $80,000 scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He is working at the Hotel Bel-Air while waiting to begin school later this year.
The finalists were selected in a preliminary competition last month, making omelets and salad for the judges -- some of whom had visited the students' classes and helped train them through C-CAP.
On Friday, moms and dads, siblings and teachers watched through windows, took pictures, tried to send good vibrations. Inside, the students worked in a silence broken only when a bowl clattered to the floor or a student maneuvered through the crowded room with a pan warning, "Hot, hot, hot."
As the students cooked, the 10 judges strolled among them, peering into pans of pastry cream or eyeing how tomato was diced. One judge, Evan Kleiman, owner of Angeli Caffe, was impressed by their composure: "To be asked to be confident in this situation at an age when they're not always confident in their own skin. . . ."
Students were scored from 1 to 10 in categories including presentation, sanitation, knife skills and taste.
After a while, nervous or not, Yepez deftly flipped crêpes in a pan. Eventually, students filled their crêpes with vanilla pastry cream and rolled or folded them. Chocolate sauce was swirled over and under, or pooled around them.
Finally, their 68 plates were carried to a meeting room, where the judges -- mostly -- applauded their work.
The students had one more hurdle on Friday: an interview with Grausman, L.A. program director Mitzie Cutler and three of the judges.
As she waited her turn, Manual Arts' Rogers said she was nervous but determined not to be distracted, so she repeated a silent mantra. "You have to have a tune in your head. Mine was, 'I'm leaving with a big, fat scholarship,' " she said with a laugh, satisfied she had done her best.
She hopes to go to the Art Institute. Her heritage is Creole, and her grandmother is a cook in New Orleans.
"My mom's given up cooking, because I do it," she said, standing with her mother, Sarone, and her 13-year-old brother, Aaron. Even he admitted his sister can cook, praising her steak. "He eats everything," Rogers said.
Broom has already been accepted to the Art Institute. But a scholarship would make a huge difference, she said. (Programs at the Art Institute run from $25,000 for a four-quarter diploma program to $95,000 for a bachelor's degree.)
"The closer I get, the more I know this is what I want to do," she said. She hopes eventually to open a catering business.
C-CAP works in schools in cities including New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, and has awarded $25 million in scholarships since 1990.
Its influence may soon be more widely known. Grausman's daughter Jennifer and her co-director, Mark Becker, followed a Philadelphia class through the C-CAP competition to the scholarship breakfast for the documentary film “Pressure Cooker.”
Today's students, of course, also are inspired by the Food Network.
"The image of culinary arts nationwide has changed. You're not just going to be a cook," said Patricia Scott, the home economics teacher expert for Los Angeles Unified School District. "Some of them think they're going to be big stars. We tell them they may be great chefs, but not necessarily TV stars." It's just like the sports teams."
Money in the bank
But they can dream, and for some of them, their dreams started to become reality at the Four Seasons Hotel on June 1, where they and their teachers and parents gathered for breakfast and the scholarship announcements.
Yepez won $2,300 toward school. He seemed a little disappointed, but gamely said that everybody starts somewhere. Aurelio Silva won a $2,000 scholarship he plans to use at Glendale Community College. Not only will he be the first person in his family to go to college; he will be the first to graduate from high school when he leaves Hoover High in Glendale.
Broom also won $2,000 in scholarship funds. Melendez received $27,000 to go to the Art Institute that, combined with another scholarship, will pay his way in full, he said.
Other winners included a senior who had missed a year of school because of health problems and a young woman who won a scholarship for a four-month program at the New England Culinary Institute and will have to leave her 1-year-old with her mother.
Federico Castaneda, a senior at Santee Education Complex who wants to work as a cruise ship chef, already is a certified food inspector and a volunteer cook at Meals on Wheels. And soon he will be a student at the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Orange County with a $54,373 scholarship.
"It was more than I hoped for," he said, a little breathlessly.
Ariel Rogers sat at the breakfast with her father, Joseph, waiting for her name to be called.
"She's making me proud," he said. "She's been in the kitchen for as long as I can remember. I'm excited. I'm very proud of her."
And when it finally came, along with nearly $51,000 to attend the International Culinary School at the Art Institute in Atlanta, Rogers was close to bursting.
"I got my big, fat scholarship," she laughed.