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.
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.
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."
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."