For gardeners it may be roses, for film-makers, Oscars. For Washington's diplomatic community, "We all live in the competition of our cooks and the presentation of our buffets," said the Swiss ambassador, Anton Hegner, one evening in May, as he left early from the 17th annual reception honoring the chiefs of the diplomatic missions at the International Club. He explained that ambassadors and their wives are very aware of the work of various chefs in embassies and clubs of Washington; they taste and compare. In fact, the ambassador himself had guests coming to his embassy that night, and he admitted that he was going to look into how his dinner stacked up against the buffet he'd been sampling.

No contest. Chef Maurice Bell of the International Club had just that evening been announced as this year's only American recipient of the French government's Officier du Merite Agricole.And this annual buffet, after all, sets the example for other chefs in Washington, explained guest Leonard Pouliot, calling it a "unique contribution" among the chefs in the Washington area.

Chinese ambassador H. E. Zemin Chai, relishing the seafood sausage he was eating, and waving his fork, had the highest compliment for chef Bell's handiwork: "It can very well compete with Chinese food." He went on about how the buffet food was attractive and appealing and stimulating to the appetite, concluding: "If what we have here is American food, then we like American food."

There was indeed a lot to like. Two barons of baby lamb, baby salmon stuffed with pike mousse in puff pastry. Pheasant pates in aspic, sliced zucchini filled with scallop mousse and sorrel. Glazed quail covering chicken mousse in tiny tart shells, the platter garnished with quail eggs in nests of lacy fried potatoes. Other tartlets were filled with duck breast and duck mousse. Filet of beef was stuffed with foie gras and larded with truffles. But it wasn't just the variety and lavishness of the ingredients, the complicated constructions of the tarts and pates that impressed. The decorations were enough (though not for long) to give one pause in consuming such art.Chicken galantines were overlaid with lilies of the valley carved of egg white. The tiniest of flowers -- truffles -- topped poached salmon. A Japanese garden complete with gazebo was built of tinted red snapper scales. A magazine illustration had been painted on the side of a ham, the illustration being no less than the emblem from the first page of the Societe des Cuiseniers de Paris.

And, nervous as he was, reticent as he is known to be, Bell made sure to point out that the mayonnaises were homemade, the aspics made of chicken stock, "not water, like many places." The buffet had taken Bell's staff of 18 at least two weeks to prepare. Bell himself, according to his assistant, had thought about placement of the food day and night.

Twenty years ago, when Bell came to Washington as the chef of the French Embassy, snails were considered highly exotic here and the simplest pates were object of wonder. Bell's work was extraordinary in this town then; yet even as mousses have become commonplace and quenelles old-hat, Bell still receives highest honors.

Three years after coming to the embassy, Bell left to open the International Club, and now is the only ex-chef of the French embassy still working in Washington.

If it is remarkable in this city for a chef to stay in one place for 17 years, it is even more remarkable that the newest member of Bell's kitchen staff came six years ago. This is a kitchen so busy that it serves about a thousand lunches a day, as many as 6,000 meals a week. In fact, the day of the Diplomatic Corps buffet, there were a dozen other banquets, half of them held simultaneously with the grand buffet. The day before there had been 20 banquets, and five days before a party for Prince Charles.

Still, Bell takes the time to age meats for three weeks, to store fresh tarragon in vinegar and fresh basil in oil for the winter. Huge stockpots bubble constantly; fresh stock is made once or twice a week. "I don't have a can in the club," says Bell, which is only a slight exaggeration that ignores a few things like beets and tomatoes.

While the International Club does nearly $3 million worth of food and beverage business a year, it is not meant to make a profit. That is not all that sets it apart from cooking in a restaurant. The clientele, a worldly and sophisticated group, tend to order what Bell calls "standard things." "When they go out to restaurants, they order everything," says Bell, but "people in a club are different." Rabbit doesn't go over well, and mousse of pigeon is not accepted. Bell tried unsuccessfully to serve Moroccan food.

Bell spent four years as a chef in Casablanca, where he served plum pudding to Winston Churchill every Christmas and during Churchill's vacations prepared a picnic every morning for the 20 to 25 people joining him in the mountains where he went to paint. Bell loves to show visitors his scrapbook, with his menus autographed by Adenauer and de Gaulle, with Temple Fielding having written, "Escoffier himself would sing praises." He shows prizes for the likes of a turbot souffle garnished with lattice screens made of puff pastry dough. He has photographs of the staffs of the kitchens he has worked as far back as 1948.

Born one of five children in St. Amand-Cher, France, Bell decided by the time he was 13 that he wanted to be a chef. So his father took him to meet a chef in Orleans to apprentice. "You want to be a cook? You know what you have to learn first?" asked the chef, who then answered himself, "You have to learn to wash the dish." Thus, Bell worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., moving on to peeling potatoes. "You had no machine," he reminisced. "You peeled potatoes with a peeler." He also had to break up blocks of coal and carry them to the stove to keep it stoked. While Bell graduated from his training in three years, it took until age 30 to become a sous chef. Then within five years he was executive chef of the Bristol Hotel in Paris. While he was there, Mme. Alphand, whose husband was then the French ambassador to the United States, asked Bell to help her find a chef for the embassy in Washington. Bell suggested five or six young chefs, but each one disappointed her. Finally she asked him why he didn't come to work at the embassy. He didn't want to leave the Bristol, but she was persuasive. Thus at 38 years old, he decided, "If I don't go away now, I'll never leave the country."

Bell, obviously, is also persuasive; his two brothers and son had become cooks, though now his son is in the produce business. And his wife, Emola, is the cook for Susan Mary Alsop. In fact, Emola Bell had cooked lunch for Nancy Reagan the same day Maurice Bell served his celebrated diplomatic dinner.

Bell plans to retire in three years and return to France. Six years ago he developed serious angina, and since then he has had two operations. He has problems with his veins from being on his feet all the time. "That is the life for a cook," he shrugs. As an enormous crash of dishes sounds from the kitchen, he shrugs again, mutters a bit and goes on with his work. "You have to have a lot of patience," is his sole comment. Bell says he used to be a nervous person, but "I learned to cool off in this country."

"This job," Bell says of his work at the International Club, "is really a teaching job." He tells his cooks, "Don't work for yourself, work for everybody." The team is important. Although Bell considers "old-style cooking" his strength, he also keeps learning. "We never stop trying things and changing things," he explains, adding that the day before he had first made crepes layered with salmon and covered with horseradish whipped cream.

Today's cooks, he complains, are too much in a hurry to bother learning what it takes to prepare a buffet like his. "You've got so many young cooks in Washington -- not bad, some, but they want to make money too fast and not take the time to learn. That is the problem." And While French chefs once came to America to earn money, they can now earn the same money in France so they need not leave. Thus, America needs American cooks who are good. Bell finds some interesting young chefs among American newcomers, estimating that 20 percent of the graduates of the Culinary Institute of America show promise. He finds American hotel cooking generally terrible, and sees French cafes as an excuse "to be between good and bad."

Bell doesn't consider slowing down -- he still works from 8 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m., with a 3-hour break to go home and take a walk. But he looks forward to leisure -- which always somehow concerns food. He fishes near Frederick, and raises radishes, lettuce and tomatoes. He returns to the French Riviera every July, where his hobby is growing flowers. And, as one might guess, he experiments with cooking them: fried roses and lotus flowers, stuffed zucchini flowers. Even family visits center around food; Bell's Italian mother-in-law always makes him special ravioli and gnocchi.

Which brings Bell to a perennial problem, one that most French chefs don't bother to concern themselves with: "In Washington, the problem is to get al dente spaghetti."

If he can't find a solution for that one, though, he can solve the problem of where to get a good mousseline of rockfish -- at home. MOUSSELINE DE ROCKFISH A L'ESTRAGON (Rockfish Mousse with Tarragon) (6 servings) 1 to 1 1/4 pounds fillets of rockfish 2 egg whites 2 cups heavy cream 1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon 1 pinch cayenne Salt and pepper to taste Tarragon sauce (recipe follows)

Ingredients should be cold. Chef Bell sieves the rockfish and blends it with egg whites in a bowl over crushed ice, then blends in cream and seasonings. But the mousse can be done quickly in a food processor: puree rockfish, blend in egg whites, and puree until very smooth. Add cream and seasonings, blening just until incorporated. Force mixture through a sieve. Butter a small oven-proof mold and spoon in mousseline. Put mold in a pan of hot -- not boiling -- water and bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes, until the mousse puffs slightly and begins to shrink a bit from the sides of the mold. Unmold onto a buttered service platter and glaze with tarragon sauce. TARRAGON SAUCE (6 servings) 6 tablespoons butter 4 tablespoons flour 2 cups fish stock 1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon 2 shallots, chopped 1/2 cup white muscadet wine 1 cup heavy cream Salt and pepper to taste

In a saucepan, make a fish veloute using the following method: Melt 4 tablespoons butter and stir in flour, cooking and stirring 2 or 3 minutes without letting it brown. Whisk in fish stock gradually and bring to a boil, stirring. Let simmer for a few minutes. Put 1/2 teaspoon chopped tarragon (reserving the rest for later) into another small pan with shallots and wine. Bring to a boil and let reduce until all the wine boils away. In the meantime, in another small pan, reduce the cream to half. Combine shallot-tarragon mixture, fish veloute and cream and simmer a few moments. Pass through a sieve. Off heat, blend in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of chopped tarragon. Add salt and pepper, check seasonings and serve over mousseline of rockfish. FRICASSEE DE POULET AU GINGEMBRE (Chicken with Ginger) (4 to 6 servings) 3 to 4 pound chicken, cut up 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper 1 teaspoon paprika 1 to 2 ounces candied ginger, sliced thin 1 pinch chili powder 3 tablespoons oil Juice of 1 lemon 2 tablespoons grated coconut 1 large onion, finely chopped 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped 1 mango 3 tablespoons Grand Marnier 1 cup heavy cream 1 cup strong chicken stock For the rice: 2 tablespoons candied orange rind 2 tablespoons raisins 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier 10 ounces rice 1 pinch saffron 1 tablespoon butter

Season chicken with salt, pepper, paprika, 1 ounce of ginger, chili powder, oil, lemon juice and coconut, and let marinate 1 hour.

Start preparing the rice: Cube candied orange rind and marinate with raisins in 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier for 1 hour. Cook rice according to package directions, adding at the beginning the marinated raisins and orange, saffron and butter.

Start cooking chicken with onions and garlic in a covered pot. About 5 minutes later, add mango meat, spooned out of its skin. Heat 3 tablespoons Grand Marnier and pour over the chicken. Flame it. Add cream and chicken stock, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 25 minutes. Remove chicken from pot and check seasoning of the sauce. If the candied ginger had been stored too long, sauce may need more ginger. Reduce sauce if necessary. Pour sauce over chicken and serve with the aromatic rice. GATEAU DE RIZ GRAND MARNIER (Molded Rice Pudding With Grand Marnier) (4 servings) 1/4 pound candied fruit, finely diced 5 tablespoons Grand Marnier 1/2 cup rice 2 1/4 cups milk 1/2 cup sugar 4 egg yolks 4 packets unflavored gelatin 6 tablespoons heavy cream 4 teaspoons orange marmalade Caramel: 2/3 cup sugar 1/3 cup water

Marinate candied fruit with 3 tablespoons Grand Marnier. Cook rice in 1 1/4 cups milk until very soft, 20 minutes or more. During this time prepare a creme anglaise: Beat 1/2 cup sugar and 4 egg yolks for 2 to 3 minutes until they form a ribbon when you lift the beaters. Bring 1 cup milk to a boil and pour into the yolk-sugar mixture, stirring. Heat, stirring, until slightly thickened. Do not let it boil. Add gelatin, cooked rice, marinated candied fruit and the Grand Marnier used to marinate the fruit. Refrigerate until it starts to thicken. Whip cream and fold into rice mixture.

In the meantime, prepare caramel: Bring 2/3 cup sugar and water to a boil, stirring just until dissolved. Let boil without stirring until it turns a light nutty brown. Pour into an oiled baking pan and let harden. Break pieces off the pan and powder the caramel by pounding or putting it in a food processor with the steel blade. Dust a charlotte mold with the powdered caramel, then pour in the rice mixture. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Unmold onto a platter and glaze with melted marmalade mixed with the remaining 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier. LA CHARLOTTE DE POMMES

This is a recipe to keep on hand for the height of apple season. Its preparation needs certain attention, especially in the selection of the apples -- they must have lots of body. Baldwin or red delicious apples would be good choices for this charlotte. (4 servings) About 4 red delicious apples 1 cup clarified butter 4 teaspoons confectioners' sugar 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind 1 cup apricot jam 1 loaf slightly stale unsliced white bread 1 charlotte mold 1/2 cup calvados 1 cup heavy cream, whipped

Quarter, peel, core, and slice the apples very thin. Saute them in half the butter with the sugar and the grated lemon rind. Cook on high heat, flipping once in a while, until they are slightly colored and cooked, but still retain shape -- not a puree. Then blend in 2 teaspoons apricot jam and let cool.

Cut about a dozen or more slices of bread 1/2 inch thick. Then cut about 4 small heart shapes from some of the slices to fit in a circle around the bottom of the mold. Dip one side in the clarified butter and arrange them buttered side down to cover the bottom of the mold in a rose shape. Fill the charlotte mold with slices of bread cut in a rectangular shape, 2 inches wide and the height of the mold. As before, dip one side of each slice in clarified butter and arrange buttered side against mold, standing upright and overlapping slightly.

Fill the bread-lined mold with apple charlotte preparation to the height of the bread. On top of this arrange a circular piece of bread or several pieces to cover the apples.Place in a preheated 400-degree oven and bake 30 to 40 minutes, until the bread casing is browned. Let cool, unmold on round platter. At time of serving mix the calvados with remaining apricot jam and glaze the charlotte with the mixture. Slice and serve with whipped cream.