Cameron Sanders

photography by Alex Lepe

Cameron Sanders’ mother and grandmother introduced him to the joy of cooking when he was 6 years old. His first culinary creation was a pan of noodles. Despite many obstacles, the 18-year-old recent graduate of Trimble Tech High School in Fort Worth was accepted at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Thanks to a $9,000 scholarship from the Food & Wine Festival in Fort Worth, his first semester is paid in full. 

Sanders is one of six children—four brothers and one sister. They grew up in poverty on the east side of Fort Worth. His father left the family when he was 9. Sanders attended school only two or three days a week because he had to care for his siblings while his mother worked. “I enjoyed staying at home, though, because I got to cook for my brothers and sisters,” he says. Sanders adds: “Only my younger brother and sister ate what I cooked. It was good healthy food.”

The summer before his senior year in high school, Sanders’ life was turned upside down. “Things got really bad at home, and I had to leave,” he says. Sanders slept on couches at the homes of friends until he found a room to rent for $50 a week. He slept on the floor and had no place to hang his clothes. His bike was stolen. With all the bad fortune also came the good. His chef instructor at Trimble Tech, Chef Natasha Bruton, helped him find jobs where he could continue to grow as a culinary student. And in the fall, he was accepted to CIA.

Bruton says Sanders’ family hasn’t given him the support he needed, so she stepped up to help with his goals and dreams. She has no children of her own. “Cameron has done everything on his own,” Bruton says. “He finished his applications. He has applied for every scholarship he can find. He also has worked two jobs, paid his own bills and rent and passed all his classes. This young man is amazing. He amazes me and inspires me every single day.” Sanders was involved as president for his culinary program in every competition or event.

“She has helped me stay positive when I didn’t want to keep going,” Sanders says of Bruton. “In my sophomore year when I couldn’t get into the culinary program, she kept bothering them. Then she kept pushing me to do competitions so I could get better. She’s always there helping me achieve higher goals.”

Sanders’ favorite dish to prepare is shrimp Alfredo, but he says if he were asked to cook for culinary icon and one of his idols Chef Jon Bonnell, he would prepare an appetizer of mango salad with mango lime vin, an entrée of rosemary and garlic chicken stuffed with spinach and Captain Crunch cereal puree served with creamy polenta, and grilled asparagus, and strawberry rhubarb cheesecake for dessert. “I haven’t had a chance to cook anything exotic like wild boar. And I’m not a hunter,” he says.

Sanders will live on campus at CIA. At first, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be in school so far away from Fort Worth. And his reason has to do with food. “It’s going to be hard to leave. I’ve already been to New York, and they have terrible Mexican food there. That’s what I’m going to miss the most.” His favorite Mexican restaurant in Fort Worth is El Asadero on the Northside, which is owned by the Villarreal family.

Sanders realizes this is an opportunity of a lifetime, and he is grateful to everyone in Fort Worth who has helped him. He will make the most of it, he says. 

Looking forward five years, Sanders hopes to be in Japan studying Japanese cuisine. His long-term goal is to own a restaurant where he would hire teenagers who need direction. “I would teach them what I’ve learned and show them work ethic and responsibility,” he says. “And I would teach them to never give up on their dreams. Don’t let people tell you that you can’t do something; if you have to, just do it on your own.”