The first things you notice about Jacques Pepin are his hands. They are the hands of an artist, a magician and a master French chef.

Soft, tapered fingers wrapped around the handle of a stainless-steel knife guide the cutting tool with graceful precision. "And now for the chop-iing," he says.The knife zips through apples (for the tart frangipanel ), potatoes (for the gratin dauphinois ), onions (for the cream of tomato soup) and garlic cloves (for just about everything) faster than you can say Miracle Slicer.

He thrusts the other hand into a plate of sweet butter and swabs the inside of the gratin dish - then licks his fingers clean. A cube of stale bread (for the Saddle of Lamb coating) falls out of the bread crumb mixture and into a bowl of marmalade glaze. Pepin picks it out, licks it off and hesitates a second before tossing it away. The audience heaves a collective sigh of relief.

The scene is the back room of What's Cooking! in Rockville, where Pepin was conducting a week of classes recently. The sessions (five for $175) were nearly sold out and the attendance was 90 per cent women. Wearing a black shirt, tight jeans and a Gucci belt, Pepin, author of four cookbooks, culinary adviser to the World Trade Center, columnist for House Beautiful magazine, former chef at Le Pavillion, Maxim's, Plaza Athenee and once private chef to French President Charles De Gaulle, looks more like a colleague of Jean-Paul Belmondo than Paul Bocuse.

Pepin is touring the country, conducting sessions at various cooking schools and promoting his books. The latest is "La Technique: An Illustrated Guide to the Fundamental Techniques of Cooking" (Quadrangle, $20). The illustrations include step-by-step instructions on a multitude of techniques, from peeling and seeding tomatoes to preparing poached salmon glazed with aspic. And of course, 455 pages of those famous hands.

Pepin almost lost one of his hands in a car accident three years ago. His car collided with a deer, turned over, landed in a ravine and exploded. Pepin suffered 14 fractures and broke his back. He wears a brace on one leg and limps. His left arm, which doctors wanted to amputate, is inches shorter than his right. "I wasn't supposed to live," he says. "I wasn't supposed to walk. But here I am."

Pepin, who hasn't changed his style of cooking to suit fads (he's still using butter and cream) does not think much of cuisine minceur. "Frankly, I'll tell you the truth," he says. "If I go to France and spend $70 a head in a restaurant, I'm not going to order sliced cucumbers and yogurt."

During a demonstration he works with abandon, never measuring - always tasting. He advises students to feel the meat for desired doneness, not rely on something so precise as a meat thermometer. He is more likely to stick a finger into the soup pot than a spoon. And when the tart calls for three tablespoons of sugar. Pepin thrusts his arm into the glass canister and pulls out half a fistful, a practice which exasperates not only his students but the management as well.

"He's marvelous," says Phyllis [WORD ILLEGIBLE], owner of What's Cooking, "but we keep running out of food. If a recipe calls for three apples, Jacques grabs six."

Pepin says he's "basically a glutton" and will eat almost anything. Hamburgers and chocolate are two favorites. So is Chinese and "real" Mexican food.

Since the accident, he hasn't been able to exercise. "I can't even jog," he complains. Why hasn't he gotten fat? I am fat. I'm squeezed in," he says, tugging at the belt on his jeans. "Besides, good food doesn't make you fat."

Pungent garlic, sweet apple and simmering tomato smells drift over the counter while the students watch and wait, taking notes, shyly asking a question or two, trying to stave off mid morning hunger pangs. Suddenly Pepin grabs the frying pan with both hands and tosses the tomato-onion-garlic mixture two feet in the air. Every morsel lands back in the pan, and a chorus of "ooohs" erupts from the class. "I need a glass of wine," Pepin says.

Ask Jacques Pepin how long he's been cooking and he answers without hesitation. "Since I was born." That was 42 years ago in a little town near Lyon called Bourg-en-Bresse, where his mother ran a restaurant called "Le Pelicon" and his father worked as a cabinetmaker. Pepin laughs at the idea that a woman isn't capable of working as a chef. "My mother is a great cook. I grew up around Lyon, which they call 'The Town of mothers.' When I go home to France," he says, "I don't go in the kitchen."

But what about the argument that a woman can't lift heavy stock pots? "That's stupid," Pepin says. "A feeble man won't be as capable as a strong woman."

When Pepin was 13 he left school and became an apprentice. But not in the family restaurant. "Oh no," he says, "I could never work in the family restaurant. Too much fighting."

In 1959 he came to America. "I'm very lucky to have a trade that I like," he says, "but if there's one thing I won't do, it's open a restaurant."

He likes traveling, likes teaching and says he's getting more men in his classes. "Men are no longer called sissies if they are interested in cooking. Ten years ago you wouldn't have any men. Fortunately, times have changed."

But some things never change. When Pepin is asked what chef he would like to be stranded on a desert island with he grins. "A nice beautiful girl chef," he says, "and it wouldn't matter if she could cook at all."

Pepin will be appearing at the Culinary Arts in Baltimore Nov. 29 through Dec. 1. POTAGE CREME DE TOMATES (Serves 6 to 8) 4 tablespoons sweet butter 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced (about 1 1/4 cups) 3 ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped 3 tablespoons tomato paste 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour 2 1/2 cups or 2 cans (10 1/2 ounce size) chicken broth 1/2 teaspoon sugar Dash salt and freshly ground white pepper 1 cup heavy cream

Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter with the oil in a saucepan. Add the onion and saute for about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and tomato paste and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Sprinkle with the flour and mix well with a wooden spatula. Add the broth, sugar, salt and pepper. Simmer 15 minutes.

Pour into the container of the electric blender and blend at high speed for a couple of seconds. Strain through a fine sieve. Pour into a saucepan and add the cream. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 2 to 3 minutes.

At serving time, stir in the remaining butter, bit by bit. Serve with or without croutons, hot or cold. GRATIN DAUPHINOIS (Serves 8) 2 pounds boiling potatoes peeled (5 to 6 cups) 2 cups milk 1 1/2 cups heavy cream 1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, peeled, crushed and finely minced 3/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper 1 tablespoon butter 1/2 cup grated Swiss cheese (about 2 ounces)

Wash the potatoes well and dry them thoroughly. Slice the potatoes 1/2 inch thick into a large saucepan. Add the milk, cream, garlic, salt and pepper and bring the liquid to a boil over moderate heat, stirring with a wooden spatula to prevent scorching. Remove the pan from the heat. Pour the potato mixture into a well-buttered gratin dish or a shallow baking dish. Sprinkle the grated cheese over the mixture and bake on a baking sheet in a preheated 400-degree oven for about 1 hour. The potatoes are done when they are nicely browned and the tip of a knife pierces them easily.

Let the dish stand for 15 to 20 minutes before serving. TARTE AUX POMMES FRANGIPANE (Serves 8 to 10) Pate Brisee: 2 cups all-purpose flour 1 1/2 sticks sweet butter, very cold and cut into 1/4-inch cubes 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon sugar 1/3 cup cold water

Place flour, butter, salt and sugar in a large bowl. Mix ingredients enough so that all the butter pieces are coated with flour. Add water and start kneading, gathering the ingredients into a ball. Do not overwork. Place on floured board and roll uniformly to 1/8-inch thickness, turning the dough a quarter of a turn as you are rolling so that it forms a "wheel." Roll the dough back on the rolling pin, lift up and unroll on a 9-inch flan ring or mold. With the tips of your fingers, push in the corners so that the dough does not get stretched. Squeeze a lip all around the inside of the flan ring and remove excess dough. Mark the edges with a dough crimper or the times of a fork. Frangipane: 3/4 cup almonds 1/2 cup sugar 1 egg 1 tablespoon melted sweet butter

Grind the almonds in an electric blender to a powder. Then mix with the sugar, egg and melted butter. Blend a few seconds to make a smooth paste. Spread over the top of the dough. Refrigerate. Apples: 4 to 5 red or golden delicious apples, peeled and cored 3 tablespoons sugar 2 tablespoons sweet butter, cut into small pieces

Cut peeled and cored apples in half and slice about 1/4-inch thick. Arrange the slices, overlapping, in circles on top of the frangipane. Sprinkle with the sugar and dot the top with butter.Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for 1 1/4 hours, or until the apples are tender and the pastry has browned. Let cool to room temperature. Apricot Glaze: 6 tablespoons apricot jam 2 tablespoons sugar 1/4 cup water 1 tablespoon Kirsch

Combine the jam, sugar and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then simmer slowly for 5 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the mixture to prevent a skin from forming. When cool, stir in the Kirsch. Bring the glaze to a barely lukewarm temperature and brush the tops of the tart with it.