The afternoon serenity of Sonali Patwardhan's kitchen was suddenly broken as six middle and elementary school girls piled in through the back door on a recent weekday.
"We're back! Let's party!" one of the girls said, reaching for a brightly colored apron.
After hugging Patwardhan, they washed their hands, put up their hair and prepared to fix not only an after-school snack but an entire meal.
The girls -- Evie Barclay, Poppy Barclay, Lily DeAndre, Edie Gollub, Ashley Meyer and Ginger Quigley -- are among multiple groups of students that two Palo Alto neighborhood chefs have been teaching. Patwardhan, a Duveneck/St. Francis resident, and Cindy Roberts of Professorville each offer the classes in their homes. Both trained in the culinary arts: Patwardhan is a professional chef trained in India who worked at Delhi's most prestigious hotels; Roberts studied at the Cordon Bleu in Paris and with Bay Area chocolate masters Alice Medrich, John Scharffenberger and Michael Recchiuti.
Both said they hope to instill the love for an art that is dying in the Bay Area. Adults these days might eschew the kitchen for the restaurant, but kids are clamoring to create their own meals, Patwardhan and Roberts said.
"Kids have so much passion in them. They give me a list of the things they want to learn. They go home and make dinner for their family and bring pictures of what they have made," said Patwardhan, who has taught kids since 2009 through her Adding Spice to Life classes.
A white board on her kitchen island informed the young students of the week's mouthwatering menu: guacamole, chicken and mushroom tacos, cilantro slaw, avocado crema and flan.
First on the class's agenda: dessert.
The girls passed around a large bottle of vanilla extract and deeply breathed in its aroma.
"It smells so, so good," Lily said.
They crowded around the stove to watch Patwardhan caramelize sugar for the flan. The white crystals magically turned to a golden liquid with the help of heat.
"It's an exothermic reaction," Evie, a Jordan Middle School sixth-grader, announced definitively, applying principles to the kitchen that she recently learned in science class.
As the flan baked in the oven, the students prepared the ingredients for chicken tacos, marinating the meat in garlic, salt and cumin and other herbs and spices.
Ashley reached to sample a piece of the marinating fowl.
"Can I try it?" she asked.
"No! It's raw meat!" Patwardhan said, instilling awareness of sanitary practices.
Eighth-grader Edie, who is a vegetarian, prepared sliced portobello mushrooms for her entree. Patwardhan said she is mindful to add vegetarian and gluten-free dishes to the menu to accommodate students' dietary needs and preferences.
Patwardhan also promotes adventuresome eating. There's a rule in her kitchen: Never say, "I don't like" or "hate." Instead, students say, "I'm not fond of."
Kitchen knives in hand, the students chopped and diced the vegetables for their individual guacamole bowls with precision and speed.
"Look at how colorful this is," one of the girls said, rotating her bowl of bright green mashed fruit studded with chunks of tomatoes, mango and chopped green onions and garnished with blue tortilla chips.
"I don't prefer my guacamole spicy; I like it salty," said Poppy, a fourth-grader at Duveneck Elementary School.
Someone wanted to know about saffron; one of the seasoned cooks had an answer: "Saffron is in the middle of a flower -- like in the 'Little Buddha' movie," Evie said.
The six girls are old timers by now; each has attended between two and four of Patwardhan's 12-week classes.
Inga Thurston, the Barclay sisters' mother, said she signed her daughters up for Patwardhan's classes after seeing a posting on a neighborhood Yahoo group. Evie and Poppy have taken to cooking wholeheartedly.
"They've graduated from assistant to the head chef at home," she said.
Like Patwardhan, Roberts' La Toque de Cindy California Culinary Experiences are geared to instill a love for cooking and eating.
In her white chef's jacket and toque -- a professional's tall hat with vertical folds for every dish she has mastered -- Roberts holds contests and trivia quizzes, cooking games and raffle tickets to spice up her cooking sessions. She has offered themed classes such as the "Best of NY Times," "Easy Peasy Meals for Younger Kids" and "Pizza and Pasta Pros." She has guest instructors, Christmas cookie baking and a class for older teens, "Chocolate Challengers."
Roberts' own love for cooking began at age 3. By kindergarten she had marked on an exam that cooking was "fun" and not "work," she said. Later in life, she turned a hobby into a profession. She worked in tech at Apple and Netscape, and then she began teaching at the Palo Alto Adult School. Parents there asked her to teach their kids, so she began with summer camps in 2008. This year she is offering her first after-school programs.
"Middle school age is the sweet spot," she said. "The kids are so enthusiastic," Roberts said.
Both chefs' classes also attract male students; Patwardhan has a class that is all boys, she said.
When classes end, the students continue to learn and have fun. A team of Roberts' students have had a booth in the past at the Palo Alto Chili Cook Off, she said.
"One way to get amazing practice with your cooking and to build community among fellow home cooks is volunteering to cook for your local school or your favorite nonprofit organization," she notes on her website, where she posts recipes and stories. "Think of it as a cooking 'quilting bee' of sorts, with a cause."