The American Culinary Federation, with support from the U.S. Department of Labor, has come up with a plan to provide this country's hotels and restaurants with better trained and better educated cooks.

The nationwide program now being launched is intended to enlist more than 4,000 apprentices over the next three years, offering them on-the-job training and college classroom education leading to certification as cooks and associate degrees from the colleges. It is considered by its organizers as a major step toward professionalizing the industry and as an inducement to bring more young persons into a field with ample employment opportunities.

Heinrich Hofmann, who heads the National Capital Chefs Association, the local chapter of the Culinary Federation, said the program here will be conducted in conjunction with Northern Virginia Community College. A student will attend classes one day a week and be obligated to work 40 hours a week in an approved kitchen to complete the three-year course.

So far Hofmann has pledges of cooperation from a dozen hotel and restaurant executives. He needs a minimum of 15 apprentices before Northern Virginia will give the green light and allow classes to begin this fall, but isn't too worried. The pilot program in Pittsburgh, which awards its first degrees today, attracted 600 applicants for 30 places.

Based on the success of the Pittsburgh program, the Department of Labor gave the Culinary Federation's Educational Institute a grant of $612,786 in March for the three-year experiment. The money is to be used for promotion and development only. Apprentices are to be paid at least the minimum wage by their employers and will pay their own tuition. Women as well as men are to be included in the program, which is intended to spread to each of the federation's 100 chapters.

The chefs' organization has pushed hard to gain the endorsement of the Labor Department's Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training. While formal programs exist in Europe, training of cooks in this country has been a haphazard affair. The Culinary Federation's intention is to eventually establish a hierarchy of apprentices, sanctioned cooks, chefs and master chefs. Ferdinand Metz, who was captain of the U.S. team at last year's Culinary Olympics in Germany, told UPI recently: "Right now anyone who works in a hamburger joint and puts on a white hat can call himself a chef."

It begins when Chef Hofmann and a committee begin interviewing applicants from Washington and its suburbs. The tentative date is July 11 at the Alibi Restaurant, 10418 Main St., Fairfax City. For further information, call or write the chef.

The Culinary Federation's leaders want to make the words "cook" and "chef" meaningful by setting standards of achievement and performance. They are aiming to improve the image of the profession and to attract apprentices with intelligence and ambition. But because chefs in the United States come from so many countries and from such diverse cooking backgrounds, there is bound to be opposition to the federation's role if not the plan itself.

Nonetheless more Americans are eating out and more personnel are needed to cook and supervise in restaurant kitchens. The federation estimates an apprentice will earn about $15,000 during the three years and pay out only about $700 in books and tuition. Currently the most prestigious academic training ground for cooks in this country is the Culinary Institute of America, at Hyde Park, N.Y. Tuition alone runs in excess of $2,000 for the two-year program there.

Heinrich Hofmann stressed that the program will be tough. "During the first 500 hours on the job (about three months)," he said, "either the chef supervisor or the apprentice can break the contract. The apprentices have to work and they have to go to class. If the hotel or restaurant isn't providing proper training, we have the right to pull the apprentice out. The kitchen must be run by a member of the federation and employ at least four cooks as well as the chef."

After three years, apprentices will face a professional evaluation of their skills as well as academic testing.