TEACHER Phyllis Plummer spoons sour cream into a mixing bowl filled with fruit and asks her tiny students what it might be.

"Well, it looks like cottage cheese," says Brad Smith, 4. Told it's not what he thought, he adds, "Oh. I don't like sour cream."

Plummer then passes around a bag filled with white flakes. "See if you can tell me what this is," she says.

The children volunteer, "Rice?" "Onion?"

"It's white like onion, but it doesn't taste like onion," she says, and offers a small spoonful for each child to taste. "What is it?"

"I want some more," answers Brad. When Plummer tells him the white flakes are coconut, he says, "Oh. I don't like coconut."

Brad, along with 16 other apron-and-hat-bedecked 3- and 4-year-olds at the Early Learning Montessori Center in McLean, is enrolled in a special six-week cooking course called Tiny Chefs. During the 45-minute class sessions, the children learn basic cooking skills and terminology and complete individual projects. Best of all, they can eat the results.

Seven years ago Melinda Kessler, then a preschool teacher with the Montgomery County Department of Education, hit upon cooking as the focus when she was asked to start a new class for 3- to 5-year-olds. Her program is now licensed to operate in schools throughout the Washington area. This fall, for example, parents of children enrolled at the Early Learning Montessori Center could opt to pay $50 extra for their child to take the course; at the Woods Academy in Bethesda, the school foots the bill for all 20 of its 5- and 6-year-olds.

The program will be offered through more private nursery schools this winter and spring and also at public Saturday sessions at other locations in the Washington area. Kessler eventually plans to start Tiny Chefs franchises around the country.

Although many nursery schools incorporate food into their programs, their focus is different: the children may make bread, orange juice, butter or applesauce as a group, then share it for their snack. But in Tiny Chefs the orientation is toward individual projects the children can take home and show their parents. Kessler fashioned a group of recipes she felt would please this age group, avoiding sugary treats and sticking to fruits, vegetables and grains. The emphasis is on small products--tiny fruit baskets made from hollowed out orange or grapefruit halves, tiny pizzas sized for a youngster's appetite, tiny fruit pies made in muffin cups.

Since the program and its teachers come to the schools, the teachers are responsible for bringing utensils and ingredients, and for cutting up in advance many of the foods to be used. Knives are not used by the children. They use paper plates, plastic spoons, big bowls, rolling pins and large mixing spoons.

The tiny yellow aprons and matching chef's hats (for $10 extra) may seem gimmicky, but teachers say they have a purpose.

"Wearing aprons and hats may be cute to the parents, but to the kids it's very real and important," says Meg Brown, a teacher at Early Learning Montessori Center. "Tiny Chefs helps develop a positive self-image in something they've only seen adults do. The children walk out with a smile on their faces and something they've made in their hands and they say, 'Look what I can do!' "

While leading a group of tiny chefs, Kessler speaks very slowly and smoothly. "What do I have here, children?" she asks, as she holds up a piece of fruit for them to see.

"Strawberries," a few at the table volunteer.

"Can everyone see the green stem on the top?" she continues. "Raise your hands if you can see it. Now everyone take your fingers and pull the green stem off the strawberry on your plate. Take your green stem and put it on the table. So the only thing left on your plate is a big, red, juicy, apple!"

"Strawberry!" the kids yell.

"Oh, that's right," Kessler laughs. "I get mixed up sometimes."

After the rest of the fruit for this recipe is introduced and added to a big mixing bowl, Kessler brings out orange halves, already hollowed out, to make fruit baskets.

"I'm going to let you each pick your own basket. Any one you want," she says. "Then I'm going to put some fruit on your plate. With your spoon, add the fruit to your basket. Fill it up. Fill it right up to the top.

"Did you ever make a fruit basket like this?" she asks. "They look very good. And you can eat it."

Since the program does not involve stove or oven cooking, a few projects, like tiny pizzas, are "take home and bake."

The children make a dough out of yeast and flour, pull it like taffy and form it into a small-sized pizza crust on their plates. Then they "decorate" it with tomato sauce, cheese, spices and mushrooms, and take it home to bake for dinner.

Susan Walker of Fairfax says her son Craig, 4, now wants to get into the pizza-making business at home. "When he brought his pizza home, he couldn't wait to get it into the oven," she said. "He couldn't remember all the ingredients, but he wanted to make it exactly like they did in class.

For more information on upcoming Tiny Chefs classes, contact Melinda Kessler at 340-0536.