What do you discuss with the leading cooking teacher of Durham, N.C.? Spoon bread?

Not these days. The quest for cooking sophistication has become a national passion. So cooks from the provinces talk of Provence and its recipes with no more hesitation than their urban cousins. In Durham they are informed about nouvelle cuisine and the pros and cos of copper cookware.

The cooking teacher sports neither gingham nor a Southern accent. Instead she's wearing blue jeans, a designer's version of a work shirt and sits with her legs folded under her. She's here today, but tomorrow - or the day after - she'll begin a trip to France. Her name is Judith Olney.

The avocational sauciers and patissieres of Durham all know Judith Olney. They come to her classes, consult her on matters of taste, help her perfect recipes for a cookbook and tell her she has changed their lives. She, in turn, tries to balance the pros and cons of an existence far from such centers of culinary refinement and stimulation as New York, London and Provence - all of which she knows well.

"I started six years ago," she explains. "I'd been teaching English literature, but was fed up grading freshman and sophomore papers and found I could make a small but decent living teaching cooking instead. The area won't support more than three classes per week - 30 to 35 students. Classes on party foods or provincial cooking fill up, but if I get esoteric attendence drops off."

One such effort is a noncooking course on "The Philosophy of Food," featuring the writings of Elizabeth David, Brillat-Savarin, Roland Barthes and others. That's hardly fare for fans of the Galloping Gourmet to nibble on.

Durham markets lack mussels, raspberries and watercress. There are compensations, however. She has a spacious kitchen and works in an environment free from Big City pressures that, she feels, has allowed her to "cope" with a 2 1/2-year-old child and writing a cookbook (Summer Food, Atheneum, $10.95). Even the limits of the circle from which her students are drawn ("my morning classes are full of doctor's wives") has proved a mixed blessing. "Some of them have been with me for four years," she said. "If I were teaching in New York and had a waiting list, I'd probably kick them out and repeat my classes. Instead I've had to churn out new dishes, new classes, new concepts."

Food, Judith Olney feels, is "the one last treat" average American families can enjoy as luxuries such as European vacations become prohibitively expensive. It is something that "adds a lot of style to life." So in Durham she can see that she has "changed certain life patterns. Whole families have moved into the kitchen and are involved. My students don't entertain any more without baking off a loaf of bread.

As further evidence of this change, there is now a "decent" cookware shop and a fine country restaurant called La Residence has sprung to life between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro. "And the fact that I've made it this long," Olney says, concluding her appraisal.

One factor in her success has been her family name: She is a sister-in-law of Richard Olney, the American artist whose books, "Simple French Food" and "The French Menu Cookbook," have made him a cult figure in the cooking world. He was an early influence in awakening the interest in food and cooking that led her - via professional classes and apprenticeship in London - to change disciplines. Through him she met the stars of the profession and several of their photographs hang on her kitchen wall.

But there's a minus to offset the pluses. A woman she meets socially asks, ever so sweetly, "Do you do any of your own recipes, dear, or do you only do Richard's."

She does her own, as "Summer Food" proves. For one thing, there are lots of recipes for desserts, and dessert is a course that Richard Olney virtually denies a place at his dinner table. For another, she avoids exotic imports.Most ingredients are readily available in American supermarkets. Those that aren't, a caring cook can grow, she maintains. The recipes are clearly and succinctly written, with touches of humor. "When cool," she writes of molden lemon cookies, "break out the design and divide the leftover crumbs with a small child." She makes a snail figure from a watermelon and creates a cake in the image of a giant peach.

"I like food to be witty," she explained, "but it still has to be good. If I've tried to do one thing with my students, it's to try to get them away from dependence on recipes - on the printed word. I try to show them you can play with food, make it respond to you, not be a slave to it." Then she signed the contract for her book and was forced, for awhile, to change her style.

"I had to tell them," she said with a laugh, "I'm going to do a book. We've got to start writing things down. We've got to measure this and that precisely."

Judith Olney is full of enthusiasms. But one sentence sums up how limited the fallout from the culinary explosion in Durham has been: "Julie Dannenbaum told me it takes 10 years to establish a cooking school. In Durham, I'd say 20 years."

Here are a trio of recipes from "Summer Food." SHRIMP ON A BED OF SPINACH (4 to 5 servings) 2 1/2 pounds fresh spinach 12 scallions 4 slices firm, crustless bread 1 cup olive oil 2 medium cloves garlic, minced fine Salt and pepper 1 1/2 lemons 1 pound peeled, deveined shrimp 1 tablespoon capers

Wash and rib the spinach. Trim the scallions and slice the tender green and white parts thinly. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Throw in the spinach and scallions and cook, uncovered, until the spinach is just tender and still green. Drain and refresh under cold water.Squeeze all liquid from spinach and chop roughly. Cut bread slices in two, diagonally.

Use 1/3 cup of olive oil to fry the bread croutons until golden brown on both sides. When all are uniformly crisp, roll up the croutons in 3 thicknesses of paper towels and set aside.

To the same pan, add another 1/3 cup of oil and half the garlic. When hot, throw in the spinach and scallions, season well and stir rapidly over high heat for 1 minute until the oil is absorbed. Squeeze juice of half a lemon onto the spinach and turn it out on the bottom of a small gratin dish.

Add the final 1/3 cup of oil and the remaining garlic to the same pan. When sizzling, saute the shrimp. Squeeze the juice of another half lemon over them and season well. Scatter shrimp over spinach. Sprinkle with capers, add 5 or 6 decorative lemon rounds cut very thin, and place the croutons around the edge. To be eaten luekwarm. WARM POTATO SALAD IN BASIL CREAM (4 to 6 servings) 2 1/2 pounds small new potatoes 1/3 cup olive oil 10 large basil leaves, plus small basil leaves for garnish 1 clove garlic, minced 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar 1 cup whipping cream Salt and pepper 1 teaspoon capers

Peel the potatoes and cook in salted water. When tender but still slightly firm, drain and cut in half.

Put olive oil, basil and garlic in a medium-sized saute pan, and as the oil heats, mash the basil with a spoon to release its volatile essence. When the leaves took wilted, turn off heat and steep for 10 minutes.

Remove basil, reheat oil and add vinegar, cream and seasoning. Mix well, add potatoes and stir and shake the pan while the cream simmers. As soon as the sauce thickens, taste for seasoning (it may need more vinegar or salt), and pour the creamed potatoes into a rustic serving dish. Sprinkle with capers and a quantity of small basil leaves. RASPBERRY 'PATE' (8 to 10 servings)

This dessert, with its overtones of English summer pudding, must be made a day (or even two) before serving. Under refrigeration, it turns into a solidly encrusted "pate," the moist magenta interior held firm by surrounding crumbs. 1 1/2 pounds good quality Scotch shortbread Approximately 3 tablespoons whipping cream, plus whipped cream for garnish Sugar 3 cups raspberries A pinch of cinnamon

Crush the shortbread to a fine crumb in a blender or food processor. Put aside 1 cup. Bind the rest of the crumbs lightly with cream until the mixture is just moist enough to pack.

Sprinkle the bottom of a small terrine or loaf pan (about 4 1/2 by 7 inches) with 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar. Pat a thin layer of "dough" onto the bottom and up the sides to the height of 1 1/2 inches.

Mix raspberries with cinnamon, the reserved cup of crumbs, and enough sugar so they taste distinctly sweet. Spoon berries into the crust and cover with remaining moist crumbs. Put a layer of aluminum foil on top of the pate and weight it with small cans or jars. Refrigerate at least overnight.

To serve, run a knife around the edge and dip the mold bottom briefly into hot water. Reverse the mold sharply down onto a towel-covered counter. Slide the pate onto a serving dish and slice off one crusted end.

Cut pate into 3/4-inch slices, dipping the knife in hot water between cuts. Garnish each slice with a small rosette of sweetened whipping cream.