When Amar Santana first walked into the Careers through Culinary Arts Program at Long Island City High School, he barely spoke English and couldn't have known that the program would open the door to a successful career in New York City's bustling and competitive restaurant industry.
The program, also known by the acronym C-CAP, was started at the school in Queens back in 1990 to give disadvantaged high school students a chance to learn the skills they need to make it in the restaurant business.
Through daily classes, summer camp workshops, the opportunity to shadow chefs at busy restaurants and help paying for culinary schools, the program helps 10,000 students in more than 200 high schools every year.
'To Be the Best'
For Santana, who immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic with his family when he was 13 years old, the program was an opportunity, but a struggle as well.
"I was afraid of going in because I was just a freshman," recalled Santana. "All of my classes were difficult. I wanted to drop out. I didn't want to be in that school."
His C-CAP teacher, Aristotle "Terry" Matsis, knew it wasn't easy for Santana, but wanted to see all of his students succeed.
"He's not, you know, a kid that grew up playing the violin and being an A-student all his life," said Matsis. "He liked coming in as late as he could and I would talk to him about coming in and yell at him about coming in on time."
Culturally, it was also hard for Santana to accept a role in the kitchen.
"Cooks in the Dominican Republic wasn't [a job] for men," he said. "Usually women do the cooking."
But, Matsis said, once Santana became a senior and got the chance to learn from some experienced young chefs, he was a man possessed.
"He was just absolutely looking to be the best," said Matsis. "He wanted to be better than me!"
C-CAP was able to help Santana get a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America, one of the country's premier cooking schools.
"After I got into CIA," said Santana, "that's when I knew that I wanted to do this and nothing going to stop me."
And nothing has.
Pride and Joy
Now 22 years old, Santana is sous chef at Aureole -- one of New York City's more famous restaurants -- which is virtually unheard of at his age.
"He is second in command," said Aureole chef Dante Boccuzzi. "Whenever I'm not around or maybe I'm in the kitchen with a guest, he makes the calls."
Boccuzzi remembers Santana as an energetic and highly motivated young man when they first met.
He was "someone who was really eager to learn and he never said no to anything," said Boccuzzi. "Whatever you told him to do it was, 'Yes, sir, right away.'"
Santana said he's found his calling and it's not a struggle but a pleasure to go to work every day.
"I love waking up in the morning and coming to work and being in the kitchen," he said. "Doesn't matter if it's 14, 16 hours a day. I'm proud of myself."
A Light at the End of the Tunnel
Judith Rizzo, an educator for the last 34 years and most recently the New York City Board of Education's deputy chancellor, said kids who get involved in C-CAP find purpose and a reason to stay in school.
"We see them responding to caring adults who provide them with a strong academic preparation," said Rizzo. They "help them to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel."
As the son of an immigrant truck driver and the first member of his family to graduate from high school, Santana said he wouldn't be living the life he is today if it weren't for the cooking program.
"If I wasn't a cook," he said, "I'd be probably working, doing deliveries in a truck."
Rizzo said that with an average graduation rate of 68 percent in U.S. high schools, programs like C-CAP are vital.
"Schools that have programs like C-CAP are absolutely ahead of the curve," said Rizzo. "They are going to be models for the rest of the country as folks try to find solutions to this appalling graduation rate."
The Careers through Culinary Arts Program was started by Richard Grausman, the former U.S. representative for Le Cordon Bleu, a French culinary school. The inspiration came while Grausman was teaching French cooking in the United States.
"I began to see that the palate of America was rather narrow," said Grausman. "Immediately the answer was, 'I have to get into schools.'"
And so, despite some resistance, Grausman began to change those old home economics classes into modern French culinary courses.
"He introduced the French curriculum into our programs," said Matsis. "We all fought him like crazy. [We] said, 'Our kids can't do it,' and, 'It's too difficult.'"
But Grausman persevered, and it wasn't long before he realized that an education in the culinary arts was an opportunity for many of these kids to have a bright future.
"You could see that many of them were very excited about what they were doing," Grausman said.
The popularity of C-CAP can also be attributed -- in part -- to the popularity of cooking shows, and the rise of the celebrity chef has made it a viable career option not just for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.
"Being a chef is now like being a doctor," said Grausman. "[It] used to be, 'My son the doctor,' or, 'My son the lawyer.' Now, there are lawyers and doctors that are saying, 'My son the chef' with great pride."
Grausman believes getting kids excited about the culinary arts can lead them down the road to a career and personal success.
"I think once you're able to empower someone to do something that seems difficult, that gives them a lot of confidence," he said. "You take flour, butter, sugar, milk eggs and you create beautiful cakes. That's magic to kids."
George Stephanopoulos originally reported this story for "Nightline" on Jan. 18, 2005.