Who wants to learn about cooking in midsummer? Lots of people, it turns out.

Americans have flocked to a dozen or more special courses now underway in France and Italy. There is considerable activity here and in other American cities as well. The change has been remarkable. A very few years ago, teaching in the summer just wasn't done.

Now the public's increased interest appears to be matched by imaginative presentations by the schools. There are "mini-courses" and "clinics." Specialty foods and techniques are highlighted. People come - and often come back in the fall to learn more.

Culinary Arts in not-so-far-away Baltimore presents a fine example of the current vintage cooking school. One evening last week more than 20 persons were on hand in the stylish, tastefully decorated store-front for the preparation of an Italian meal, one of three demonstrations offered over two days every week.

The school's directors, Bonnie Rapoport and Anne Barry, worked like accomplished duo-pianists to construct from scratch an elaborate rolled pasta dish with two sauces. Along the way they made a salad of green beans, chicken with rosemary and garlic and a chilled lemon souffle.

Tips on cooking flowed forth along with ingredients, techniques and comments on equipment and tools. "Certain gadgets are stupid and certain gadgets make a lot of sense," Rapoport said as she brandished a lemon zester, which is on her approved list. There was no ethnic music nor were there costumes.Instead the teachers emphasized freshness of ingredients and simplicity of preparation, characteristics that set the best Italian cooking apart from mundane imitations. Spinach, beans and basil had been brought that day from the directors' own gardens.

Gone are the dictates of the professional chef turned cooking teacher, who used to order trembling students to do something only his way, not necessarily because it was the best way but because it was the only way he knew. To make sheets of dough they used a pasta machine because, as Rapoport put it, "I've rolled it out by hand and the machine is good enough for us."

A student wanted to make the lemon souffle, (which was white flecked with lemon peel) more lemon-like by adding yellow food coloring. Rapoport looked puzzled. "That's very strange to me," she responded, "but if you wanted to, you could." Later, as she decorated individual bowls with a shaped slice of lemon, she provided a far more appealing alternative. "Garnishes should not just look good, they should alert people to what they are going to eat," she said. "Use whole nuts on a nut roll, or a lemon here."

Barry got in her share of comments and tips, too, displaying a light sense of humor along the way. Both women speak softly - a bit too softly with an air conditioner for competition - and shun theatrics. But the audience was quiet and attentive, for although both instructors are in their 20s, their knowledge is impressive and their presentation flows smoothly.

It is more difficult than the casual viewer might realize to demonstrate dishes while preparing enough food to feed 20 people whose appetites have been stimulated by smells and sights for more than two hours. A "game plan" is essential. Some steps must be done ahead; repetition must be avoided. (To cut up one chicken is instructive; to cut up three or four is to bore the audience.)

The essential dilemma in teaching cooking, however, is whether to teach by demonstration or by participation. Rapoport and Barry favor demonstration, but compromise somewhat by inviting volunteers to come forward to try various procedures. The other evening, for instance, students rolled and cut pasta dough.

When it was over, when the students had gone and the remaining raw materials and dirty dishes had been dealth with, they sat down to discuss the phenomenon they are part of: the explosion of interest in food and in "gourmet" cooking.

"People have suddenly discovered food in this town in the last year," said Barry. "I think we've turned a corner. The telephone hasn't stopped ringing this summer. It's really hopping." Barry commutes to Baltimore from Washington, where her husband, Ray, is on the staff of the American Film Institute. Rapoport is a native.

They have been cooking together for six years, including a year-long stint at the Cordon Bleu in London, the best academic cooking school of them all. "From the time we got to Europe we wanted to do a cooking school of our own," Rapoport said. "That always was the goal. But at the time we had no idea cooking schools would sweep the country. We thought we were unique."

In Baltimore, they were. Others taught but no one else had opened a full-time cooking facility. "They didn't know what a cooking school was," Barry said.

For a time after Europe they lived in Washington and did catering. Baltimore instead of Washington provided most of the jobs, however, and gradually their reputation and contacts there grew. "It was a stepping stone," Rapoport said. "We had learned a lot but we needed much more practical experience. Then we were doing four or five parties a week and it got to a point where we had to expand or fold. We didn't want to hire a staff and open a commercial kitchen."

Instead, with the help of a Small Business Administration loan, they got the "low rent" store in Mt. Washington Village, an area undergoing urban renewal in the northern part of the city. With the help of Rapoport's mother, a fine cook herself, they developed a demonstration facility that is "a dream to work in."

That was in March 1976. Word of mouth, mailings to a list that now exceeds 1,000, newspaper articles, television appearances and a visit to class by Mayor William Donald Schaeffer all helped. So did what they call the "coming alive" of Baltimore with a number of restaurant openings. Having spent "two years trying to catch our breath," they look forward to a three-month fall schedule that will include six courses of four to six weeks and 18 or 19 clinics.

"Our horizons keep expanding," Barry said. "We've become a teaching center. Now other teachers can do demonstrations and people will come without knowing who they are. They trust us."

The cost ranges from $15 for one session, $45 for a three week session and $75 for six.

Another approach they began last spring with the noted Chinese instructor Grace Chu is to bring in celebrity cooks. This fall Jacques Pepin will teach a course. "We want to take courses, but we haven't time," Rapoport said. "This way we can learn, too.

"The long courses are the most fun, though," she continued. "We get to know the students and they know us. It's a lot looser than the one-time classes. Of them all, our basic techniques course is the most gratifying. People who haven't cooked, a lot of them men, come in. By the time they finish they're not afraid to go into the kitchen and cook."

Here are two of the recipes they taught their students last week. CHICKEN WITH GARLIC, ROSEMARY AND WHITE WINE

(6 to 8 servings) 4 tablespoons butter 4 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil 4 or 5 cloves garlic, peeled 2 frying chickens, washed, quartered and dried 2 small branches fresh rosemary or 1 teaspoon dried Salt and freshly ground black pepper 1 cup dry white wine

Heat oil in a deep skillet or saute pan over medium-high heat. Add butter. When foam subsides, add garlic and chicken pieces, skin side down. When pieces are well browned on one side, turn over. Add rosemary, cutting each fresh branch in half. Remove garlic if it begins to burn. Otherwise leave it until chicken is cooked.

When chicken is thoroughly browned, add salt, pepper and wine. Allow wine to boil for 4 to 5 minutes, then lower heat until it simmers. Cover pan and cook slowly until chicken pieces are tender about 25 minutes. Turn pieces at least twice and add water as needed if wine evaporates.

Transfer cooked chicken to a warm serving platter, removing and discarding garlic. Tilt pan and spoon off grease, leaving at least 3 tablespoons of juice. Return pan to high heat, add 3 to 4 tablespoons of water or broth and scrape brown bits from the pan. Season juices to taste and pour over chicken. Garnish with sprigs of parsley and serve. COLD LEMON SOUFFLE

(6 to 8 servings) 1 package unflavored gelatin 2 tablespoons water 3/4 cup sugar Grated rind of 4 lemons 1/4 cup lemon juice 7 eggs whites, stiffly whisked 1 cup heavy cream, whipped but not stiff 1 tablespoon powdered sugar 1/2 teaspoon vanilla Lemon slices and mint leaves for garnish

Soften the gelatin in cold water in a saucepan, then add sugar, lemon rind and lemon juice. Melt sugar over low heat without bringing mixture to a boil. Cool.

Prepare egg whites and cream separately, adding powdered sugar and vanilla to the cream as it whips. Fold whites, then cream into cooled base. Pile into individual bowls of a souffle dish. Chill for at least 1 hour.Garnish with lemon slices and mint leaves before serving.