IN FRANCE, a chef has been considered a late bloomer if he had not worked in a kitchen for several years by the time he was 18 years old. In America, one is lucky to find a place to apprentice even at 18. Restaurants complain that they can't find good kitchen help, and youngsters wanting a career in kitchens complain that they can't get a job without experience . . . and can't find anyplace to get experience.

Not so at Park West High School in Manhattan, where nearly a thousand public high school students -- including 120 special education students and three classes of deaf and hearing-impaired students -- spend at least half of each school day learning catering, baking and meatcutting. In "the only high school in the nation with a federal meat inspector on the premises," according to principal Edward Morris, (and perhaps the only school where the smell of garlic predominates over the also-present aroma of marijuana, as a reporter observed), a four-year course is conducted in 22 commercial food shops which would be the envy of most hotels.

It took 30 years for the old food trades high school to get this new facility in 1978. The modern building with curved mosaic front wall is already covered with graffiti, the better to blend with the boarded-up buildings and used car dealers in its neighborhood, which used to be called Hell's Kitchen.

Of the 20 staff members in food trades, seven are former students; all are required to have at least seven years professional experience. The students study food trades three to four periods a day, some coming earlier and staying for twice-weekly, after-school baking classes. They prepare hundreds of breakfasts and lunches a day to sell to teachers and students, run a bakeshop and do special-order catering, sometimes for City Hall or the United Nations. Teacher Larry Wilson, who worked at the Plaza, Regency and Waldorf hotels, likes to show his students how to do ice sculpture and pulled sugar.He takes them on field trips to hotels and restaurants. And the teachers have used their contacts to route their students to jobs and special projects -- like assisting with large banquets. The principal's office is lined with commendations from former customers and photos of the school's peanut butter contest, which included peanut butter meatloaf and peanut butter gravy.

But all is not gravy at Park West Security requires that every kitchen remain locked during the day; the butcher shops are padlocked. A student rolls the day's baked goods down the hall to the retail counter in a locked baker's rack. There are grumbling students who complain that when they act up, they do nothing but chop meat all day. But then there are students like Sona Rose, who used Park West's facilities to run a summertime cookie concession, where she earned over $100 a week baking and selling cookies from carts. Now commuting two hours a day from Brooklyn, she wants to go on to a culinary junior college. William Walker, an enormous young man in a vest and corduroys, was assistant meat chef in a camp last year and earned $1,000. He hopes to attend a culinary college, then become a kosher cook, because he likes the challenge of adapting recipes. Edwin Martin, a natural-born manager, stayed back in school a year in order to enter Park West because he was "desperate to come here." He was running the school's student dining room, The Crystal Palace, and hoping to continue with culinary college in order to become "an executive chef and connoisseur." Three or four students a year go to the Culinary Institute of America, more to Johnson and Wales college.

According to Morris, Park West's dropout rate is 10 percent below the city rate, and even those who drop out often do so to take jobs in the food trades. About 200 of the students work in camp kitchens during the summer -- often with their teachers. Although some food trades students complain that the only jobs they can get when they graduate are minimum-wage jobs in fast food chains, Morris says that the job placement service has more jobs than students and that they often start at $12,000 a year. Academic students have an awful time finding jobs, he adds.

While Washington area public schools do teach some food trades, their curricula and facilities are much less elaborate than Park West's. Chamberlain Career Development Center, in the District, for instance, has had a 3-year baking program since the 1940s. Its 38 students spend two hours a day baking and the rest in academic classes; the third year, some are placed in bakeshops to apprentice for high school credit. Chamberlian has space for about a third of the students who apply.

Like Park West, Chamberlain faces big-city-school problems; on the door of the office is a sign, "This office carries no cash." But otherwise no other precautions are evident.

The second-floor bakeshop is easily found by following the smell of the doughnuts. Every day the classes make white bread, doughnuts, sweet rolls, brownies, gingerbread and the like, which they sell to the students. Steven Carter, the teacher, was a student at Chamberlain himself before he worked at Hogate's restaurant, then returned to teach.

With only one shop and only two hours a day, Chamberlain's training is far less ambitious than Park West's; the best training, say those who have tried it, comes from apprenticing in local bakeries.

In 10th grade the students learn about fermentation of doughs, sanitation, safety and running a shop. At Chamberlain, the budget does not allow them to learn to make puff pastry. In fact, the students don't get to work with butter at all, unless someone commissions them to do a special project; ordinarily they use butter flavoring. Their eggs come frozen. For pies and pastries they use canned fruit fillings. They used to make them from scratch, said Carter, but "with so many kids in here, we don't have facilities or equipment. It's too time consuming." His 18 students work in a kitchen designed for eight, he explains.

The students who earn credit by apprenticing -- 6 of them this year -- learn a broader range of techniques. Wilbur Joyner has worked in Woodward & Lothrop's bakery for a year, where he makes not just white bread, but rye and french and rolls. Working five days a week, from 4 to 11 a.m., he gets paid and graded for his job, and also learns more, he says: "In a bakeshop you learn every day." Joyner has ambitions to work for the Wonder Bread company because it sounds like a secure place to work with plenty of fringe benefits. So far he earns $170 a week, but expects $230 a week after he graduates. His brother Michael, who Carter says is a talented artist at cake decorating, now works at Clement's; according to Carter, Michael Joyner ought to be able to move up to $300 a week. One of the problems the students face is being unable to get jobs until they are 18; Carter is trying to work out an arrangement with Safeway to take them into the company's apprentince program before 18, and for a shorter training period that takes into account their schooling. As he admits, they still have a lot to learn when they graduate. The school's most prominent success story? "I would have to say it was me," admitted Carter.

Montgomery County high schools teach Creative Foods and Gourmet Cooking, but only two schools have vocational food service programs: Paint Brush and Rockville. Each of the two has one commercial kitchen and a small restaurant, where students serve lunches for the staff and special classes. About 200 to 250 students participate in the two-year program, which is about 10 years old. The proposed Technical-Vocational Center in Wheaton is expected to make the program available to students from other county schools.

In Virginia, Arlington has a one-year culinary program, and Fairfax has a one- or two-year program in five schools. Unlike the city schools, Fairfax has trouble rounding up enough students to fill the program. The classes, two to three hours a day, prepare food to sell to teachers and the community -- not to students. Teacher Catherine Young at Chantilly High School has 18 students and all the special orders -- for catering, cake decorating and a weekly church dinner -- they can handle. The special orders are crucial to support the program; if there were no orders, they would have to concentrate on book learning, said Young. While none of her students are interning, she says they readily get jobs on graduating, but less than half actually go into food trades. Young herself has never worked in the food industry; she moved to food trades from teaching home economics.

New York's program is so successful, says Chamberlain's director of career development, David White, who had worked in the New York program until 1972, because of its relationship with business and industry. Business leaders have always been on the board of Park West and its predecessor; and at the moment the school is negotiating with two fast food chains to set up a training kitchen in the school. Teachers have had contracts in the business world who have brought work to the school and the students to jobs. Apprentice work has often turned into post-graduation jobs, and is bridging mechanism for full-time employment.

Washington should be a good job market for students, because it is so "hospitality-oriented," White explained, but between fast turnover and a well-entrenched seniority system, career mobility and up-grading are "not that terrific." In any case, he added, "A person shouldn't go through a 2- or 3-year program to get a job with a fast food chain."