Later, Ray called on fellow chef, TV personality and restaurateur Bobby Flay to christen the kitchen, and he whipped up the dish Chicken Chasseur for students. Flay will stay in town for the opening of his new Burger Palace restaurant tomorrow at 39th and Walnut streets.
To the further delight of the students, Ray told them they'll travel to New York City to attend a taping of her show on May 3.
Since Wednesday, workers labored to renovate the school's antiquated kitchen. A once-sterile space is now a replica of what a professional kitchen and restaurant looks like, said Carter Oosterhouse, who designed the project.
A commercial stove, a drawer microwave, a host of colorful utensils and cookware from Ray's product line are part of the new digs and a "Periodic Table of Sandwichry" hung as art.
Students can launder their food-soiled chef jackets in a new washer and dryer in the storage room nearby.
In the adjoining bistro, where teachers and students can order food and dine, bright yellow paint and portraits of Wilma and her students adorn the walls.
"This is the environment this teacher deserves, right?" Ray asked the 10 students who surrounded a workstation.
"Yes!" they replied.
Student Diamond Selby certainly thinks so. "She deserves this," she said. "She's done so much for the kids here. Half of everything in the kitchen came from her home or it came out of her pocket. Her money, her energy, her blood, sweat and tears went into this."
Stephenson's zeal for her students caught Ray's attention and was the subject of a 2008 documentary film, "Pressure Cooker."
"We're just here to celebrate her story," Ray said, referring to why she chose to honor the 41-year district veteran. "There are few programs like this left in the country."
But even Stephenson's program may not stay the way it is.
Due to changes in federal and state guidelines, school officials say they plan to refocus the district's 15 culinary-arts programs from low-paying "back-of-the-house" skills such as cooking, to "front-of-house" skills, which mainly deal with customer service.
First-year principal Reginald Fisher said he has hopes for the culinary program. "It's a challenge, but there's no challenge that's insurmountable," he said.
Ray agreed, noting that the work of educators like Stephenson is what makes a difference in the lives of students.
"That's part of the reason why we're telling this story," she said.
"What [Stephenson] does here is more than getting students into a scholarship program. She sets them up for the rest of their lives."