Food & Drink

Fort Worth Food and Wine scholarship winners keep dreams cookin’

Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival 2015 scholarship recipients Xavier Thompson, left, and Camron Sanders at Fred’s Texas Cafe’s TCU location.
Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival 2015 scholarship recipients Xavier Thompson, left, and Camron Sanders at Fred’s Texas Cafe’s TCU location. Special to the Star-Telegram

Xavier Thompson was not the type of kid who was a picky eater. If he tried something new, he thought, he’d be different from everybody else, eating something better than they were having. He even kept a food diary, starting when he was in the fourth grade.

“I started to experiment a lot with the things that I was eating,” he says. “I was always asking for new things. I kinda built on that, and it became something I aspired to as a career.”

Now Thompson is pursuing a degree in culinary sciences at the Culinary Institute of America’s Hyde Park, N.Y., campus. And he’s doing an externship at Stein Eriksen Lodge, a five-star resort in Park City, Utah.

“It’s really eclectic, regional food,” he says. “A lot of etiquette and precision goes into all the food that we put out.”

The Park City gig, and more directly the CIA studies, are connected with Thompson receiving a 2015 scholarship from the Fort Worth Food + Wine Foundation, which benefits from proceeds from the Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival, the 3-year-old culinary celebration that puts on several events every spring.

Thompson, who graduated from North Side High School, and a fellow 2015 scholarship winner, Trimble Tech grad Camron Sanders, met for lunch recently with several foundation board members at Fred’s Texas Cafe’s TCU location.

Several notable chefs and restaurateurs were present, including Jon Bonnell (Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine, Waters Fine Coastal Cuisine), Kevin Martinez (Yatai Food Kart and the soon-to-be-reopened Tokyo Cafe), Richard King (Ellerbe Fine Foods) and festival director/co-founder Russell Kirkpatrick (Reata).

Thompson will be at Stein Eriksen Lodge through August, and he plans to return to Fort Worth to pursue chef work. But his ultimate goal is to work in research and development at a large company like Dole, Campbell’s, Welch’s or McDonald’s.

“In the science department,” he says. “Making sure the process of food is safe, coming up with new menu items, things like that.”

He’s also considering food marketing as another career option.

According to a release from the foundation, Thompson grew up in a troubled home but was determined not to let obstacles define him. He watched a lot of food TV to learn more about cooking. He pushed himself within North Side’s well-respected, tough food curriculum, competed in regional and state competitions, and was active in student council, varsity choir, orchestra and other school activities.

Sanders also overcame obstacles: According to his FWFW Foundation bio, early in his senior year at Trimble Tech, he was homeless. He told the Star-Telegram in a story published in early 2016 that growing up, he had no stable home and seldom ate three square meals a day. At times, he would have to skip school to take care of his ailing mother and young siblings.

“I spent most of my time in and out of homeless shelters when I was little,” he said in the Star-Telegram story.

But in his sophomore year, he joined the culinary arts “Gold Seal” program at Trimble Tech. For years, Sanders had been intrigued by the culinary arts. He wanted to grow up and open a restaurant in order to support his mother and younger brothers and sisters.

“He came in with so much gusto,” chef instructor Natasha Bruton told the Star-Telegram. “He just fell in love with this.”

He became one of Bruton’s top culinary students. He began working for local chefs to earn money to rent a room. He rode a bike to work, but it was stolen. He continued to work and earned his diploma in June 2015. He was also accepted into CIA Hyde Park, but struggled to finance his dream until Bruton pushed him to apply for the FWFWF scholarship.

KXAS/Channel 5’s Deborah Ferguson, who was also at the Fred’s TCU lunch, reported on Sanders’ story after the scholarship was awarded. After Ferguson’s piece ran, viewers contributed plane tickets, a laptop, a chef’s knife set, clothes and dorm room provisions and other gifts to Sanders, according to his bio.

A quiet young man, Sanders did not talk about any of his obstacles during a brief interview. He says that he was inspired to start cooking simply when he saw a commercial about a hamburger.

“I was like, ‘Oh, this looks good,’ ” he says. “I tried to cook it for my family, and they weren’t excited about it. They thought it was rare. I ate it, and it was pretty good.” Like Thompson, he wasn’t exactly a picky eater: “I would try everything once,” he says.

Now he’s also working as a line cook at Island Creek Oyster Bar, an acclaimed Boston-area restaurant. He’ll be there for about five or six weeks. He says he has a restaurant concept called Caliente Wasabi that he’d like to open as part of a management program at CIA.

The foundation awarded $20,000 in scholarships in 2015, and plans to award $30,000 in 2016, with selections to be made shortly. The scholarship committee seeks applicants from the Fort Worth area who have demonstrated commitment, character and need.

It asks scholarship winners to return to work in the Fort Worth culinary community for two years, if possible, upon graduation.

This report includes material from Star-Telegram archives.