At 4:15 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, children under 5 feet tall darted every which way in the Lafayette Elementary School kitchen.
It was a choreographed sort of madness. The team had already finished dicing the cilantro, mincing the garlic and slicing the carrots, juliennestyle. Now, as some hurriedly packaged the salad, others washed the industrial-sized cookware, sauteed the turkey meat, boiled the spaghetti noodles or sliced long loaves of garlic bread with a long, serrated knife.
"Forty-five minutes so far! Good timing, ladies and gentlemen," called Demetra Mack, who runs the program with her husband, Reggie.
The Junior Iron Chefs, as they are called, whip up a meal every week for the seniors who live across the street, at Oak Center Towers. Then the young chefs serve the dinner, themselves.
Apart from their height, their budget and the size of their kitchen, the 11 young cooks have more in common with their on-screen counterparts than a catchy name. They work under pressure (dinner for 120 people in 60 to 90 minutes), they make every move with a sense of urgency, and they try to prove themselves with each meal.
But unlike some of the competitive chefs on television, they are polite to each other.
"I say a lot of manners, like 'Excuse me,' 'Thank you,' 'You're welcome,' said Dashawn Franklin, 11.
Karimah Omar, 10, nodded. "I never used manners before. If people were in my way, I'd say, 'Move!' and now I say, 'Excuse me.'"
The Macks came to Lafayette last August as counselors, "character-builders" and conflict mediators. When Benjamin Redmond, the principal, heard that Reggie Mack was a personal chef and that the couple had experience running junior high and high school cooking teams, he went to see one in action. Instantly, Redmond said, he knew he needed to bring the Junior Iron Chefs to Lafayette.
The squeaky-clean elementary school, with its striking views of downtown Oakland, is located in an area fraught with violence and crime. (One fall day in 2006, while tending one of its gardens during an after-school program, children discovered a woman's body.) Historically, many of West Oakland's young residents especially African-American men have fallen behind and dropped out of school.
In the midst of such challenges, Lafayette's staff have tried to create a hopeful, positive space for children to learn. Last year, school test scores jumped 52 points on a scale of 1,000, and Lafayette met all of the No Child Left Behind goals for the first time in years. The Junior Iron Chefs, who started cooking midyear, are another source of pride.
"You have to be strict. You have to be disciplined. You have to be focused. You have to be a team player," Redmond said. "There's kids in here I could see taking this and running with it."
Last week, even before the piano music filled the Oak Center Towers dining room, the children manned their stations behind the buffet table. Karimah handed out disposable plates to those in the quickly growing line, and Jasmine Green, 10, carefully poured juice into small plastic cups.
"This is cute," said a gray-haired woman, one of the first in line, after sizing them up.
"Would you like some spaghetti sauce, ma'am?" Dashawn asked. (In the next 20 minutes, he would pose that question dozens of times, in exactly the same way.)
Throughout the evening, 11-year-old Samuel Howard watched vigilantly for diners who needed extra assistance, for those who wanted a little more juice, or for any other way he could make their experience more comfortable.
"It's just like you're in a five-star restaurant," Sam had explained earlier, when describing how the evening would unfold.
Sam, who has emerged as a leader in the kitchen, is one of the program's success stories. Self-control hasn't always been his strong suit, and he was even temporarily suspended from the program because of his behavior. But he has returned with a new attitude, Redmond said.
Junior Iron Chefs has given Sam, and others, a way to use their energy in a constructive way, Redmond said. The children say it has allowed them to shine.
"It gives me like a talent," Karimah said.
The diners at Oak Center Towers appreciate the team's efforts. One woman, who has taken a shine to Jasmine, once made cream puffs for the team. Another lady sometimes squeezes Karimah's cheek and tells her she has the nicest manners. (Karimah said she doesn't mind.)
John Garth, a retired teacher, said he is touched by the whole thing.
"See, these children are an example of good things that are going on in this city," he said.