At any given time, more than 1,000 Philadelphia high school students in 20 schools are participating in the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, learning kitchen and other hospitality skills.
One of the program's recent stars is Brianna Wellmon, now 24, who grew up with her mother and four brothers in North and South Philadelphia. After her 2012 graduation from Dobbins High (where she pulled a 3.7 GPA and was a member of the robotics team), she won a two-year scholarship to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Back in Philadelphia two years later -- she said she did not have the money to continue for a bachelor's degree -- Wellmon went to work alongside some top chefs in the city, including Sylva Senat, himself a C-CAP alum. She's worked for Garces Events at the Kimmel Center and at several restaurants, most recently at Rooster Soup Co., which helps support Broad Street Ministries.
Then the phone rang: She had won one of seven Olesay/C-CAP Internship Scholarships awarded nationally, allowing her to study for three months in Madrid. She leaves in early April to work with chef Antonio Hernando at Alabaster, which holds a prestigious Michelin star.
The phone rang?
I had just left my previous job and I was actually looking forward to taking some time off to figure out what I wanted to do next. I knew that whatever I did next, I wanted to be there for at least three to five years to really grow. I had saved money up, so I was OK.
Then I got a call from Christine Lee [C-CAP's national career adviser] and she said, "You know, Brianna, we have this opportunity for you to be a culinary ambassador in Spain." She gave me a quick briefing of everything and I'm like, "I don't know if I could do that," and then she was like, "You have to have a passport." I was, "A passport? I haven't been out of the country." They're going to pay for room and board and we all get to work at Michelin star restaurants. I was told, "You're ambassadors, so you have to speak and really talk about your experience," and I said, "I don't know." It's so nerve-racking.
What will you be cooking?
It's a lot of seafood, as well as some of the menu is in Spanish. Everyone knows kitchen Spanish, but, like, really holding a conversation? [The app] Duolingo right now is my best friend.
How did you get involved with C-CAP?
Through the magnificent Penny Greenberg at Dobbins. I was in her class. I liked cooking. I cooked at home for my family. I had, like, the first time I used a stove, I think I was 9 and it was at home. That was after I had upgraded myself from the microwave. She said, "Brianna, did you ever think about joining C-CAP?" At first, I'm like, "C-CAP? That sounds like a lot of work," and you know, being 15, 16, you're hard-headed, so you kind of blow it off. She's like, "You know, you should really do C-CAP. I think this is good for you." I'm like, "I don't even know if I want to cook. I still kind of had dreams of being a lawyer." I thought I was still going to be a lawyer, but I loved cooking. I just ... I don't know. At that time, I just wasn't thinking about making it long-term. Happy I did, though.
What really changed your mind?
Once I came into class to cook breakfast. I always liked the pancake station. I was good at it and she was like, "You know what? You're not cooking anymore until you sign up for C-CAP," and I'm like, "What? I can't do that. You're my teacher; you can't not teach me." She said, "You're absolutely right, and I'm not going to not teach you, but it'll be from the book. It'll be like book work and not hands-on stuff." So, I finally filled out the papers for C-CAP, and once I started doing the competition, I'm saying, "Oh. This is how you make creme brulee. This is how you make pastry cream. This is how, oh," and I liked the dish. I really got into it. I really like this. You know what? I really like this."
How did you know you were good in the kitchen?
I will never forget this. I always say I had improved on cooking when my little brother Jamar didn't spit my food out anymore and the first time I had made him a meal that he, like, sat down and he ate all of it. I made pork chops and cabbage with rice. My mom ate the whole thing. My brothers ate the whole thing, and, you see, growing up with boys, we tease each other a lot, so a fight, if you lose, you get teased. You know, if you do something and it's not right, you get teased. You develop certain things, so when I sat and watched him eat it and I'm just sitting there, "Ha! Got you. Ha!"
What did you learn at CIA?
Dealing with a wide gap of different personalities and different styles and different traditions. Me personally, I grew up watching WHYY-TV12 with Mary Ann Esposito and the cooks who would come on at 4. After that, we're back to regular cable television, but that's what I grew up on, so I never really got to see chefs that look like me, or not even look like me but lived a similar lifestyle. Lived in a city like mine. I met a few people who also lived in Philadelphia, so that was cool. Then I had something to kind of to relate to. That is really what interested me because it really kind of made me see that it's so crazy that all of these different people with all of these different backgrounds still came together just to this place and learned classic food. That was the thing that we had in common, so that was the first time where I really saw that food brings people together in many different ways. Not just at the aspect of us sitting at a table together, but us just saying, "Hey. You know what? We have a similar dish like this."
What will you do when you come back?
Right now, I'm working on building a brand. I want to cater. I like to cater for people. I like to cater large events and I like to do it in a way where you feel like you're still getting, like, quality service. ... I've learned not to make plans too far ahead. Just in this past year, I've met some really amazing people in the most random places. When I was picking up my passport for Madrid, I met a young woman who was a producer at BET. Like, what are the odds of that? I'm Christian. I pray on it, and if it's meant to be, Lord is going to let it be.