TWO JUDGES stood over the Best Piece of the Show at the Culinary Salon, explaining what it takes to make such a nougatine box filled with pulled sugar flowers and paneled with painted pastillage . Said Bernard Urban, "The guy who does this here is an artist. It takes him years to develop this design." Not quite .

Andre Bollier agreed. "This requires such a long training and special talent," he explained. "He has to have basic knowledge of the trade and then specialize in sugar work." Try again .

"Two talents are involved: sugar work and artistic work," added Urban. "Not too many people can do that, even if he is a good pastry chef." That's more like it .

The "he" they were referring to was identified on the card in front of the prize-winning entry as Ann Amernick, of Elysee Boulangerie, also assistant to pastry chef Roland Mesnier of the White House. And the long formal training they cited started 1 1/2 years ago when Amernick began to train under pastry chef Patrick Mussel. Her pastry career began as a hobby about eight years ago; and, though self-taught, she quickly attained a professional level of expertise. Finding a professional outlet for it, however, was another matter.

The judges raved about Amernick's pulled sugar flowers and ribbons. "The flowers are most amazing," said Bollier, citing their "beautifully achieved silky texture and thinness." Amernick started pulling sugar just a year ago, and has never had a chance to do it regularly; like other skills, this one she absorbed rapidly. Nougatine work she started last August, painting on pastillage last April, and this was the first time she had ever made her own pastillage .

When Amernick, then a Rockville housewife with two preschool boys, turned from painting miniatures to decorating the gateaux and tortes she was teaching herself to make at home, her talent and drive had her soon making cakes to order that were impressive. I first saw a cake she had made as a baby gift for a friend, and was astonished to see such work from an amateur. It was inspired by the Gateau Marjolaine from France's famous Pyramide restaurant -- though Amernick had never visited France.It was decorated with paper-thin chocolate cutouts, circles and the birds that became her signature. It was as precise, imaginative and professional-looking as I had seen, and I made a point to meet this woman who was trekking to farms and hatcheries with her sons to buy the best and freshest eggs and butter.

Learning to make pastry was the easy part for Amernick. She quickly developed prodigious knowledge of ingredients and techniques. She mastered genoises, sponges, buttercremes, ganaches, meringues, and had such inborn sensibilities that she could walk into a candy shop and smell the artificial vanillin which, when pressed, they would admit they were using. Amernick showed her pastry books as any of her neighbors would have showed their baby pictures or their new shoes. With her friends, she would sit at a restaurant table with a half-dozen pastries, dissecting them and examing their aroma, crumb, texture, rolling the buttercream on her tongue as a wine tester does his claret.It was a mess.

She was gradually convinced to look for a job in a kitchen, and went from one to another with boxes of samples.

"Honey, they'd eat you alive in my kitchen," advised one restaurateur who said that he couldn't hire a woman.

Another rejected her because, he said, she could never lift the stockpots. She didn't protest that a pastry chef needn't lift stockpots, or ask to prove to him that she could lift them -- and she could. Eventually, she found work in The Big Cheese, which was run by a woman and had a woman chef. From there she went to Le Pavillon, and then found her way to the Palais des Friandises, where, for the first time, she worked under a professional pastry chef, Patrick Mussel. And from there she was hired part time by the White House, where the highly celebrated pastry chef, Roland Mesnier, became her teacher. Since then she has balanced two or three part-time jobs at once, often working mornings at the White House and the rest of the day at Pasta, Inc., then Maison Blanche, now at Elysee Boulangerie, as well as doing special-order cakes in between.

Last summer, Amernick visited France for the first time, stocked up on professional baking equipment after pring over the cataglogues for months, no less absorbed than a child with a Christmas catalogue. She went into her first professional equipment shop, and asked for a white chef's coat, in the fluent French she learned in kitchens during the past couple of years. For whom? Pour moi. They laughed. Then, not now.