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C-Cap: It takes a Village

Chefs come together to mentor and guide the next generation, and get some great staff to boot.

by Francine Cohen

Despite the fact that Hillary Clinton probably wasn’t directly referring to the future of the tightly knit New York restaurant community when she said, “It takes a village”, the woman had it right! It does take a village to ensure that the city’s restaurants flourish, and that the next generation of chefs and restaurateurs are properly trained. Without a classic guild or apprentice program in place, as there is in many European kitchens, the future of great dining is in the hands of such villagers as Floyd Cardoz, Andrew Carmellini, Mark Ladner, Marc Murphy, Marcus Samuelsson, Rick Smilow, Alfred Stephens, Patricia Yeo, Stanley Zabar, Tim Zagat, and dozens of others who are committed to sustaining a vibrant restaurant scene in New York City. They know that the only way to keep the stoves on and the doors open is to ensure there’s always great talent behind them.

Talented sous chefs, sommeliers, and servers don’t fall out of the sky – they must be schooled and nurtured before making a real impact in the restaurant world, and that’s where Richard Grausman and C-CAP (Careers Through Culinary Arts Program) come in. Grausman, a highly decorated culinary instructor, traveled the world for over 15 years as an ambassador of Le Cordon Bleu, teaching thousands of people how to enjoy cooking French cuisine. In 1990, realizing that schools and the restaurant industry don’t speak the same language but could work together, he founded C-CAP to introduce urban teenagers, at risk of leaving high school without a job or college prospects, to a fulfilling career direction, a set of real skills, and scholarships to make it happen. Since its inception C-CAP has trained over 500 teachers, reached 90,000 students, awarded over 1,650 scholarships valued at over $15 million, and today it manages the largest independent culinary scholarship program in the United States.

Chefs Alain Sailhac and Michael Lomonaco came on board early; Sailhac hosted the year-end competition at FCI for a couple of years and Lomonaco hosted the awards breakfast at Windows on the World. Marcus Samuelsson, another longtime supporter of C-CAP who has been chef chair for the last nine benefits, tells why Grausman was the right guy to start this innovative program that sends well-trained junior chefs into the kitchens of the best restaurants. He says, “There are few people who do more than Richard to give kids an idea about our industry, make them aware.” Grausman’s dedication spans more than three decades teaching, and writing; he wrote a bestselling cookbook At Home with the French Classics. He contributed articles and recipes to publications like Food & Wine, New York Magazine, and House Beautiful, and appeared often on television. In 1997 he was awarded the President’s Service Award, the highest recognition given by the White House for volunteer service. In 1998 the French government promoted Grausman from “Chevalier” to “Officier” of the prestigious l’Ordre de Mérite Agricole for his “outstanding contributions to the advancement and demystification of French cooking for Americans.” With this award, Grausman joins such culinary greats as Julia Child, Paul Bocuse, Michel Guerard, Jacques Pépin, Joel Robuchon, and Patricia Wells.

Nice company, but Grausman wanted to make a difference. While pursuing his passion in the late 1980s he encountered a disturbing forecast on food and cooking habits indicating that fine dining and home cooking were destined to take a back seat, literally, to microwaves in cars, offering a bleak vision of cook-less homes. Through his many years teaching French cooking he learned that typical American adults weren’t interested in expanding their palate and that this projection might come true unless he and others did something. He recalls how the concept of starting C-CAP in New York came to him one morning, “If there’s anything that I could do in the latter part of my life to change that forecast, I had to get to the students.”

Grausman imagined innovative ways to introduce inner city kids to food, starting at the elementary school level and, by high school, offering classes to train the palate and the mind to be open to understanding the techniques and skills they need to create tempting menus of their own. This unprecedented program now has graduates flourishing in careers throughout the restaurant and hospitality industry. Waldy Malouf, who has been involved with C-CAP since 1992 when he was at Hudson River Club, says that “Richard Grausman has brought C-CAP to what it is and made it work. Sit with him for a few minutes and there’s no question how great it is. You want to be involved.” Grausman is thrilled that C-CAP is a reality, but it wasn’t easy getting here. The city’s school system wasn’t keen on vocational training programs, and home economics teachers found their cupboards empty, and often had to buy the bare essentials with their own money, until Grausman reached out to his contacts for in-kind product and kitchen equipment donations. C-CAP also provides teachers with the training to make these classes more appealing to students who may have otherwise overlooked them.

It’s funny to think back, before the Food Network and can’t-miss events like the Citymeals or Share Our Strength benefits, to a time when cooking was overlooked as a viable career. “I can go back long enough to when chefs never came out of the kitchen,” Malouf said. “They were kept back behind the stove. Many were drunken maniacs. But then look at what happened in the 1960-1980s food culture revolution. It was our revolt against Wonder Bread and things from WWII that our families embraced. Travel exploded, food magazines became more popular, and there was a movement of American chefs who came out of culinary schools; guys like Rick Moonen, David Burke, Charlie Palmer, Larry Forgione - they weren’t types to be sequestered. They had articulate thoughts and were presentable, and there was a culture shift. Before then, and before schools like CIA and City Tech exploded, chefs weren’t afforded much respect. But if you say you’re a sous chef now, you get respect. Working in the food industry has become legitimized, and now I know 15 year old kids who want to be chefs.” Bobby Flay adds, “I think that there is definitely a desire from younger kids to start thinking about being a chef as a profession, it’s sort of like lawyer, doctor, chef. It’s a new thought but it’s a good one.” But Flay cautions, “One thing is a little disheartening -- the good thing is that there’s so much interest and it is giving kids another idea as to what to do for a living, it is one more thing for them to consider. The other side of it is that when I used to do demos in school a couple of kids would come up to me and say how I get a job in a really great kitchen. Now they ask ‘how do I get a really great television show?’ What I tell them is if you want to be on television go to acting school. You shouldn’t think of food as a vehicle for television. You’ve got to get the basics, put in your time in the kitchen. You can’t skip the steps, though it happens every once in a while, but if you go on TV and you’re not incredibly knowledgeable it is immediately evident.” Chef mentor Floyd Cardoz of Tabla often cautions C-CAP grads in his kitchen, “You have to love it. It’s a craft you have to do over and over and you have to want to succeed. It’s a total commitment.”

Committed teenagers, living in New York, Los Angeles, and other cities where C-CAP has a foothold, are taking steps to live their dreams. They know the opportunities for ongoing involvement with C-CAP are endless. Rick Smilow, a C-CAP board member and the President of Institute of Culinary Education (the site of the annual C-CAP end-of-year competition), notes, “C-CAP is wholly unique in their commitment to follow through. C-CAP has paid staff to be a cross between coach/counselor/job resource. I think the support network has a big role in the success of C-CAP grads and the program. Life and careers are a journey, and school is only part of the journey, and school opens the doors. But many times a C-CAP scholarship kid may be the first in his family to go to college and can’t get experienced support from their family.” Doug Psaltis, who has a few C-CAP grads in his kitchen at Country concurs, “Lifestyle is not dependent on what your parents have. It’s all about what you have. The four star kitchen is just a subway stop away and they belong here, they can have whatever they want.”

The C-CAP organization measures its success in many ways, and a number of grads have risen to positions where they can now mentor current C-CAP students and alumni. Alfred Stephens, Corporate Chef of the Olives Group and Pastry Chef of Olives at the W on Union Square, is one success story. At the 1994 New York C-CAP Cooking Competition for Scholarships, he was awarded a full tuition scholarship to the French Culinary Institute. After graduation he quickly landed a job in the pastry kitchen at Mesa Grill working under Wayne Harley Brachman, who soon promoted Stephens to sous pastry chef before spiriting him away to assist in opening Strip House. With the experience of opening a restaurant under his belt, Stephens joined Todd English’s team when Olives opened, and after a couple of months Stephens impressed English enough that he earned a promotion to Corporate Chef. Stephens says simply, “Without Richard Grausman, this wouldn’t be Alfred right here, right now!”

At Eleven Madison, 29 year-old Kirk Johnson, a chef de partie, also credits C-CAP for his success. Before landing at Eleven Madison, Johnson was in prestigious kitchens such as Aquavit and San Domenico. “C-CAP has opened doors for me,” Johnson said. “I had a teacher in high school that really pushed me to be the best. He encouraged me to stay after class and showed me how to perfect my desserts and temper chocolate.” At a competition in 1996 Johnson met Kurt Walrath, the pastry chef at The Rainbow Room, who asked him to work in pastry for him. “While I was there, I saw Waldy Malouf who I remembered from the competition where he was a judge. I went down to introduce myself and see if there was an opportunity to work together but because it was a union shop there was no cross-over.” However, Kirk got his chance to work with Waldy when Malouf opened Beacon. Malouf was thrilled to have him on board. “Kirk was a poster boy, a good kid! He started at a low level on the line and worked his way up, ending his time here as lead line. His next move would have been a sous chef, but I don’t have that position here.”

Aneisha George has found a great position at Tabla and appreciates the role that C-CAP plays in her career. “This to me was the opportunity of a lifetime to work with Chef Floyd,” she says. “I don’t think I could have gotten a foot in the door if it wasn’t for C-CAP. They know everyone in the business! I had been looking for something, then I called C-CAP and they made a call to Tabla who told them to ‘send her over’.” George has been there a while now and has advice for other C-CAP grads, “Stick with C-CAP and if you need help, just pick up the phone.”

Daniel Coward’s help from C-CAP came when he won the competition in his senior year of high school, and was guided towards attending Johnson & Wales. Unlike many of his fellow grads who have found positions in freestanding restaurants, Coward found a home in a hotel, in the Mandarin Oriental’s Asiate. This elegant setting suits Coward, who spent four years studying culinary arts and getting his BA in culinary nutrition. At Asiate Coward feels he’s got the best of both worlds; a small fine dining experience in a corporate hotel environment that provides benefits for him and his family.

The C-CAP family is so well respected by chefs who are impressed by the focus, skills, and the good attitude that graduates exhibit that once they get a competent C-CAP student in their kitchen, that the chefs are calling Grausman and saying, “send me more if he or she is any indication of what you are training.” Kelvin Fernandez, 21, is the perfect embodiment of someone who impresses the chefs he works under. Fernandez, who works at Café des Artistes, is the youngest C-CAP grad to hold the position of Executive Sous Chef, a title he earned in five short months. A former high school football player, he followed a girlfriend into cooking class and never looked back. He was the proud recipient of a $20,000 scholarship to CIA and worked for Alfred Portale at Gotham on weekends where he was allowed to man the garde manger station – an unusual position for an intern. This shy Harlem native credits his quick rise and dedication to his desire to expand his horizons. He says, “You’re there to learn. So show up early, stay late. I’m learning about food buying and food costs, it’s great.” His executive chef, Joseph Paulino adds, “He does everything to a ‘t’, and more.”

Receiving more money to make school an affordable reality is one benefit these kids get from the C-CAP program, and the scholarships are coming from the industry itself, not simply from corporate sponsors. Stanley Zabar recently announced a $100,000 endowment in honor of Lidia Bastianich; the funds will be distributed in $5,000 increments to top students heading off to culinary school after high school graduation. And Daniel Boulud got the best 50th birthday present ever from his business partner - the creation of an endowment fund administered through C-CAP. The recipient of the scholarship must be a chef who has spent at least three years working in the industry. Their scholarship to Institute Paul Bocuse covers the program cost, lodging, travel, and pocket money. And Daniel’s provides contacts in Lyon and surrounding areas where weekend stages are arranged. “C-CAP is invaluable for people who have no means to find a craft,” says Boulud. “With this program, they have access to schools. Joel knew it was a dream of mine to form a scholarship and then grow the endowment to be able to raise enough money to send more than one student per year to Ecole des Arts Culinaires et de l’Hotellerie in Lyon.”

New York chefs who invite C-CAP trained students into their restaurants get an opportunity to mentor, as well as a dedicated pair of hands on the line. Samuelsson focuses in on the reasons to hire a C-CAP student, “It benefits the industry because staff is always hard to find. Finding someone who understands what you are trying to do is great. And the pool grows when you grow the program.” Flay comments on the warm fuzzy aspect of mentoring, “You can’t mentor everyone, but the handful you can mentor will be much more prepared to make the decision to move forward. You give a kid their age a realistic look into what the real world is all about, and you hope that it’s infectious, and you hope that by one chef mentoring a whole group of kids the next chef feels compelled to do so, too. Hopefully it was a personal experience, a turning point that makes them feel like they want to give a little time back.”

Giving back is something that chefs are renowned for, whether it’s mentoring a young chef or contributing to a community cause. Last year C-CAP addressed the restaurant community’s interest in building a corps of solidly trained front of house staff, and launched 9-day training at the suggestion of board member Tim Zagat. Students learn the basic structure of restaurants; career paths, equipment, food identification, basic dining room procedures (setting tables, table maintenance, order taking, food delivery, point-of-sales computer systems), hospitality and customer service, timeliness, differences between high school and the workplace attitude, self-presentation skills, resume writing and interviewing, teamwork and communication. At the successful conclusion, students are placed in seven week paid internships. Chris Giarraputo, Corporate Executive Chef of BR Guest comments, “Over the years, we have found working with C-CAP to be a truly rewarding and valuable experience. The students that have spent time in our restaurants and working with our team have taught us as much as we have taught them. B.R. Guest continues to be big supporters of the experience that CCAP’s front-of-house program provides, as it plays a great role in shaping the future leaders of our industry. ” And Danny Meyer notes, “Anytime you can find additional sources for recruiting and people who are devoted to excellence and hospitality, it’s a good thing for the industry.”

An entire room filled with people who are devoted to excellence and hospitality is what will be found February 27th at Pier 60 for the annual C-CAP benefit, a grand walk-around six course tasting from 36 of New York’s top chefs, paired with wine and champagne. The benefit, which this year is honoring Lidia Bastianch, is co-chaired by Stanley Zabar and Tim Zagat, with Al Roker as Master of Ceremonies. Students are paired with chefs at each tasting table, giving them a unique opportunity to work side-by-side with their idols, as guests sample delectable seasonal culinary creations and bid on once-in-a-lifetime culinary and travel packages. “It’s one of the best events to do,” says chef Bill Telepan. “New York is a great restaurant community, and the people involved are the best chefs in the city and everyone is really friendly to be around.” Danny Meyer concludes that “Beyond sending our chefs and restaurants to cook at the annual gala, we have also been a longtime sponsor of this extremely successful event. Most importantly, that event has exposed our chefs and general managers to the richness of employing C-CAP graduates.”

If you would like more information about getting involved with C-CAP, please call the C-CAP national office at

(212) 974-7111.

Francine Cohen is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.





           

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