The restaurant kitchen buzzed Monday with the sounds of chopping, slicing and the chatter of workers.
"Stop pushing," giggled one, elbowing her white apron-clad colleague.
"This cheese smells, but it tastes so good," proclaimed another.
"Someone ate the chocolate? Man, that was my job," joked a third.
And finally, a plaintive, "Mr. Patrick, I forgot I need to call my mom."
These employees were sixth-graders from Oak Ridge Elementary School in Oak Park getting their first course in running a restaurant.
About 50 students participated in the sixth "Five Star Restaurant" dinner, where they worked with professional chef and restaurateur Patrick Mulvaney to plan a menu, shop for produce and prepare and serve a gourmet meal to 120 diners. The kids served up their fare at the school cafeteria Monday night.
The program, sponsored by Mulvaney's B&L restaurant in Sacramento, exposes youngsters to operating a business while learning to cook with healthy, fresh, local food.
Mulvaney said the program is helping to create more healthy eating and lifestyle choices in the neighborhood.
"This isn't just about the kids who are cooking, but their cousins, parents, and younger kids at the school who hear about this," he said. "This promotes the access to great food and is fueling the desire for great food. It changes the culture of the kids and school, and then we hope it brings change to the community around them."
The students work with Mulvaney on planning a menu, preparing and serving the food and transforming the school cafeteria into a posh restaurant. This year's program involved Mulvaney and students shopping at the Sunday morning farmers market at Eighth and W streets in Sacramento to choose produce for the dinner.
"You should see them driving hard bargains with the vendors," Mulvaney said of the shopping trip. "They love having adults interact with them."
He said students practiced math skills while they figured weights and costs of produce and brown rice for the dinner.
Mulvaney and his wife, Bobbin, participate in the program because it exposes children to the wide variety of food available close by, he said. He said the students' menu choices have become more creative and sophisticated since they began the program.
"Since we started this six years ago, the kids are more excited and want to work with different produce," Mulvaney said. "They will tell us, 'We want to use those green stick things,' and that means asparagus. They are into beets, and if we suggest daikon, they say, 'Oh cool, yes, daikon.' It's amazing to hear kids talking about radishes."
After the trip to the market, the students accompanied Mulvaney to his restaurant kitchen, where they washed and peeled vegetables, simmered brown rice and sliced strawberries for the dessert.
By Monday afternoon, the students gathered at the school's cafeteria, where they chopped baby carrots, spiral-sliced beets and stacked plates. They got ready to serve up a fresh green salad, orange and fennel marinated chicken, with brown fried rice and Delta asparagus. To top it all off, they prepared chocolate strawberry shortcakes with fresh whipped cream.
Jerimiah Amos, 11, said he had never been to the farmers market and was impressed by the displays of grapefruit and strawberries.
"Look, I made the salad dressing," he said, proudly pointing to the quarts of olive oil spiked with oranges and onions.
Tahjne Gay, 12, said she cooks at home, but liked being in Mulvaney's commercial kitchen.
"I learned how not to cut my finger with a knife while slicing, and how to work with a team," she said.
The event is also riding on the popularity of food trucks by serving appetizers from a taco truck parked at the school, a first this year.
Dinner guests included local dignitaries such as Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, and City Council members. Proceeds from the $60 tickets went to a school fund for special field trips.
Call The Bee's Anne Gonzales, (916) 321-1049. Follow her in Twitter @AnneGonzo .