THREE hundred food professionals argued endlessly at the second annual American Cuisine Symposium in New Orleans about whether there is an American cuisine--and if there is, what it ought to be called.

While they discussed endlessly they ate endlessly. Whatever it is called, and whether or not it exists, they concluded, it's great stuff.

Restaurateurs from all over the country--some of the key figures in the invention and revival that is coalescing into The American Cookery--mixed earlier this month with suppliers and designers, publicists and critics. Even the French came to the symposium, and Germans and Swiss and one Belgian. America is beautiful this year.

Chefs are looking to our mountain streams and forests for ingredients that inspire. And food writers are looking into kitchens where the chef's accent is regional rather than foreign. The Culinary Institute of America's diploma rather than the Immigration Service green card is the status paper.

The major lesson on American cookery was not in the lectures and panels; it was in the city itself, with the restaurants as case histories. Ella Brennan, who runs Commander's Palace, was the kind of hostess who responded to the group's complaints about overeating and needing to work it off by arranging for a marching band to lead them parading through town to the riverboat where they were to feast on--literally--a boatload of boiled crawfish, shrimp and oysters while they steamed along the waterfront. The symposium was full of Brennans, all reaching new heights of southern hospitality.

New Orleans restaurants are family businesses, and such a strong culinary tradition that other cuisines adjust to them. "Louisiana has the only true generic cuisine that exists intact," said Roy Guste, fifth-generation manager of Antoine's, adding that in New Orleans it is a cuisine that developed in the restaurants rather than in homes. "No restaurant survives in this city without eventually becoming a New Orleans restaurant," he added.

Thus Kolb's German restaurant serves pumpernickel bread pudding, Louis XVI French restaurant makes Oyster Rockefeller Souffle' and crawfish beignets. Warren LeRuth, who retired from LeRuth's to let his sons run it, defined New Orleans cooking as aiming for "the flavor impression." That's his scientific vocabulary talking about "spicy." Red pepper was the first air conditioning New Orleans ever had, he said, and today's new generation of "sugar babies" growing to maturity seeks the taste of sweet-hot, the taste of the '80s.

The restaurants of New Orleans went to great pains to show off their most local foods, from the Fairmont hotel's creole cream cheese at breakfast to Paul Prudhomme's open-house tastings at K-Paul's to Commander's Palace's historic 100th anniversary black-tie extravaganza. "Service in this country should take a good look at this town," said Jonathan Waxman of Michael's restaurant in California.

At the Commander's Palace anniversary dinner more than 250 guests were served by a cadre of waiters who called guests by name. They served more than 250 fried softshell crabs simultaneously, which required the restaurant's purchasing two extra deep-fryers and 20 new frying pans plus 10 fire extinguishers just in case. And printing two menus, one with redfish substituting if the season's first softshells didn't arrive in time. Hundreds of semi-boned gamey little pigeons, grilled just right. Hundreds of puffs of bread pudding souffle', the evening's most extraordinary dish. And hundreds of glasses of California's most-sought and least-available wines.

Basking in this municipal generosity, the panelists themselves grew generous. Larry Forgione of Brooklyn's River Cafe defended the beleaguered French nouvelle cuisine, describing it as an expression of individuality rather than a style, and paid homage to its having encouraged careers in cooking for American youth. Marcel Desaulniers of Williamsburg's Trellis restaurant credited the California wine industry with giving American chefs the challenge of using homegrown products, and the print media for whipping up the enthusiasm of young people for the restaurant business. Brian St. Pierre of the Wine Institute linked his constituency of winemakers with the chefs: These days tastings match wines with food samples to evaluate their compatability, and computerized wine lists are the wine steward's answer to the daily-changing menu.

As they exchanged ideas the truth dawned: old is new. The new fashion is old-fashioned: potato pancakes and barbecues and devil's-food cakes of church supper days. The most modern of cuisines is often a revival of pre-technological. Raw fish and beef, Americanized sashimi and carpaccio. Cooking over wood in mesquite grills or hickory smokers. Wild foods on tame tables. Everything homemade in the kitchen, as if the industrial age had never materialized.

Despite 2,000 new manufactured products on the market in this past year, as estimated by Bon Appetit's Jan Weimer, chef Richard Perry, with a mere 88 seats in his St. Louis restaurant, makes his own sausage, pickles, corned beef, preserves and ice cream, not to mention bread. Executive chef Mark Caraluzzi serves thousands a day from the American Cafe''s central commissary, which each week makes 300 gallons of chicken stock, cleans 40 cases of broccoli by hand and strips 20 pounds of fresh tarragon. Manhattan's Texarkana makes its own ketchup, Los Angeles' Trumps its own cones for ice cream.

Today's chef is part of a restaurant family, real or invented for the occasion. And like the California winemaker of today, he is so young as to have missed Prohibition by decades and to know "postwar" to mean only "after Vietnam."

In 1940, Bon Appetit's Weimer told the symposium audience, 23 percent of our population lived on farms; now less than 5 percent does. So the passionately committed American restaurateur becomes a farmer and hunter in absentia, the financer of the specialty farmer and patron of exotic crops.

American food, declared one chef after another from the podium, is simple, seasonal, flexible. Where once people looked for food that was familiar, today perhaps the hamburger is enough to satisfy that craving, for otherwise Americans seek new tastes; the chef's task in this age of convenience is to avoid boredom.

Lunch at K-Paul's restaurant, the New Orleans mecca run by the buddha of Cajun cooking, Paul Prudhomme. Upstairs at his market, oyster bienville po' boys; spicy pork sausage called andouille, just out of the smoker; chicken galantine stuffed with andouille dressing; smoked Cajun ham known as tassos; sweet potato-pecan pie. Then downstairs to the Formica-furnished dining room for sit-down lunch: midnight-colored crawfish bisque and smokey gumbo; crusty blackened redfish--the dish of greatest fame--and Eggplant with Rabbit Rhodes; fried mirliton stuffed with fried oysters and topped with hollandaise; crawfish e'touffe'e and stuffed fried softshell crawfish, washed down with Dixie longneck beer and pepper-spiked Cajun Martinis. Bread pudding moist and spicy for dessert. And coffee as strong as Cajun pride.

Author Jim Villas established the demarkation for culinary civil war by espousing what he calls the "ultra-conservative viewpoint." He scorned crabmeat with raspberry pure'e, insisted that sushi and pizza cannot be American, derided undersalting and the overemphasizing of health, sneered at "for God's sake, chitterlings in cognac."

The first skirmish was over local prosciutto (which elicited a shudder from Villas) vs. indigenous but more distantly produced Smithfield ham. Not American, declared Villas of St. Louis' Volpe prosciutto. It's all from American pigs, fired off the St. Louis questioner.

Portland cooking teacher Richard Nelson, having explained that there are "two kinds of cooking in America today; there's good cooking, and all the rest is gourmet," refuses to believe there is a new American cuisine. "I think we're in revival," he argued, and proceded to demonstrate the old-fashioned virtues of fried chicken and baked chocolate pudding. Making an onion casserole, he forgot to put in the cream. "Well, this is how new dishes develop," he quipped.

Nelson declared war on microwave ovens, food processors and undercooked vegetables, but straddled the fence by touting a dinner by chef Mark Cox, of Brennan's in Houston, as "my first perfect meal." Cox, a 26-year-old West Virginian who went to Houston from Washington's Four Seasons Hotel, is hardly a revivalist with his phyllo-wrapped soup of crab on asparagus rafts; multilingual "Shrimp with Trois Pastas"; papillotte of redfish with two sauces and two stuffings; lamb in a crust with spinach, creole mustard and chopped pecans.

The recent French Revolution--nouvelle cuisine--was never very far from the surface. And the Boswell of nouvelle cuisine, French restaurant critic Christian Millau, spoke right after the babas au rhum at lunch. "There will never be an American cuisine as long as it copies French," he fed his strategy to the group. Don't replace steak Diane with Paul Bocuse's pastry-topped truffle soup, he warned.

But St. Louis restaurateur Richard Perry had already been subverted: "We discovered we could get a dollar more from soup if we put puff pastry on it." And more than one slide show depicted soup wrapped in phyllo or topped with a puffed dome.

A cocktail party at the hotel. Buffet tables of Louisiana oysters and shrimps and that American-invented cut of meat, the chicken drumette. Hot dog carts rolled to the tune of French Quarter jazz, and sazeracs lubricated a crowd freshly hungry for New Orleans.

A semi-official stop: A party at Antoine's, where the most delicious part of the evening was Guste's oratory. Oysters Rockefeller, the original dish in its home environment, authentically eschewing spinach. Then a risky main course, veal with pineapple and two sauces. Everything in New Orleans has two sauces. Unless it has three. Dessert: a baked alaska as big as a South Louisiana oil field. Antoine's reputation for gustatory indifference remained intact, but Guste's hospitality reminded everyone what fun it is to be part of the family.

The new is old, parried the River Cafe's Forgione. A century ago Virginia housewives were thickening sauces with vegetable reductions. And today's chefs are reviving cottage industries, giving support to long-forgotten products. Forgione, famous for rooting out wild berries, rare mushrooms and fresh game for his kitchen, volunteered to share his knowledge with chefs seeking sources. A modern culinary militia was about to be armed.

Prudhomme was the link between new and old. His Cajun cooking is as authentic as cooking gets, yet he constantly refines. His mother's hours-long cooking of roux she started in a cold pan now takes three minutes started in a hot pan. Another unheard-of practice, he saute's file' powder for his gumbo, using it to flavor rather than thicken, since heat destroys its thickening power. If there was an overwhelming disappointment to the symposium, it was that it ran over a weekend, when Prudhomme's restaurant is closed. But K-Paul's addicts managed to stop by each morning and afternoon for another chance at the perfect oyster po' boy or the dark, intense chicken and sausage gumbo, begging for the kitchen to char another blackened redfish or trying again to catch the mythical pecan cake.

In food as in other things we are a nation of dabblers; Betsy Balsley, food editor of the Los Angeles Times, claimed that Southern Californians are becoming "nibble diners," ordering just a couple of appetizers and desserts. Johnson & Wales College's Plantations Room allows diners to order a one-third portion of its entrees as an appetizer; and St. Louis' Richard Perry predicted the decline of the main dish (while Mark Caraluzzi of American Cafe predicted an explosion of good bread).

Though designer Charles Morris Mount demonstrated that the kitchen has changed less than any other part of the American home, what goes on in that kitchen is restless, experimental, venturesome. Julee Rosso, of Manhattan's The Silver Palate, warned, "Don't try to accomplish everything you know in one dish." And Balsley chided Southern California chefs for being "fearless. They operate on the principle that if some chef can cook it, so can they."

As if to echo her, Southern California chef Jonathan Waxman claimed, "The cooking I do--if you called it refined, you'd be stretching the point a bit."

Between meals there were coffee-and-food breaks, from beignets to bread pudding. And between food breaks there were samples from cooking demonstrations: June Soniat's jambalaya. Jonathan Waxman's grilled pigeon with fresh morels and his salad of grilled Maui onions with lobster, radicchio, baby Kentucky beans, roasted red peppers and chives (he'd left out the blood oranges and the bed of deep-fried potatoes, perhaps in deference to the conservatives' sensibilities; the California contingent, in the throes of "radicchio withdrawal" from the dearth of salads in New Orleans, formed a phalanx around Waxman's leftovers). Richard Nelson's chicken, onion casserole, lentil salad and pudding. Paul Prudhomme's bisque and gumbo and jambalaya.

"Do you know what American food is yet?" demanded Prudhomme of the audience. Well, maybe, maybe not. But given the run on Prudhomme's homemade andouille, which plenty of participants stuffed in their suitcases for carrying home, everyone was still willing to continue the quest.

Here are some of the fruits of their research: K-PAUL'S CAJUN MARTINIS

Put 1 split cayenne or jalapeno pepper in each bottle of vodka or gin. Fill air space in bottle with dry vermouth. Store bottle 8 to 12 hours. Serve in chilled martini glasses, garnished with pickled hot green tomato wedge if desired. Or remove pepper from bottle and store. K-PAUL'S CAJUN SEAFOOD GUMBO WITH ANDOUILLE SMOKED SAUSAGE (10 servings) 2 cups chopped onion 1 1/2 cups chopped green bell pepper 1 cup chopped celery 3/4 cup vegetable oil 3/4 cup all-purpose flour Seasoning mix (recipe follows) 1 tablespoon minced garlic 5 1/2 cups hot seafood stock (recipe follows) 1 pound andouille smoked sausage (preferred) or any other good pure smoked pork sausage, cut in 1/2-inch pieces 1 pound medium peeled shrimp 1 dozen medium to large oysters in their liquor 1/2 pound crab meat, picked over 2 1/2 cups hot cooked rice

Combine the onion, bell pepper and celery in a bowl and set aside.

Heat the oil in a 5 1/2-quart saucepan over high heat until it begins to smoke, about 5 minutes. Gradually add the flour, whisking constantly with a metal whisk. Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until roux is dark red-brown, about 2 to 4 minutes, being careful not to scorch it or splash any on your skin. Immediately add half of the vegetables and stir well (switch to a spoon if necessary). Continue stirring and cooking about 1 minute. Then add the remaining vegetables and cook and stir 2 minutes. Stir in the seasoning mix and continue cooking 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the minced garlic; stir well, then cook and stir 1 minute more. Add the stock, stirring until roux is dissolved. Bring mixture to a boil. Add the sausage and return to a boil; continue boiling 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes more. (Meanwhile, heat serving bowls in a 250-degree oven.) Add the shrimp, undrained oysters and crab meat. Return to boil over high heat, stirring occasionally. Then remove from heat and skim any oil from the surface. Serve immediately.

To serve, mound 1/4 cup rice in the middle of each heated serving bowl. Spoon 1 cup gumbo over the top, making sure each person gets an assortment of the sausage and seafood. SEASONING MIX (Makes 4 teaspoons) 2 bay leaves 2 teaspoons salt 1/2 teaspoon white pepper 1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper (preferably cayenne) 1/2 teaspoon black pepper 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano leaves

Combine ingredients thoroughly in a small bowl. SEAFOOD STOCK (Makes about 5 cups) Fish carcass from a 3- to 5-pound fish, head and gills removed* 6 cups cold water 1/2 onion, unpeeled and halved 1 small rib celery

Rinse the fish carcass to remove any blood. Place it, the water, onion and celery in a 2-quart saucepan. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer about 30 minutes, adding water as necessary to maintain about 5 cups of liquid in the pan. Cool and strain. Refrigerate until ready to use.

*Note: If available you can substitute seafood shells and/or heads (such as shrimp, crab or lobster) for the fish carcass. SHRIMP REMOULADE (From Commander's Palace) (4 to 6 servings) For the remoulade sauce: 1/4 cup creole mustard (substitute any grainy French mustard) 2 tablespoons paprika 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup white vinegar 1 cup scallions, finely chopped (1 large bunch) Dash hot pepper sauce$5 1/2 cup celery, finely chopped 1/2 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped 1/2 cup ketchup 1/2 cup yellow mustard 2 cloves fresh garlic, minced 3 whole eggs, room temperature Juice of 1 lemon 1 cup salad oil For the shrimp: 48 medium sized fresh raw shrimp, peeled and deveined Juice of 2 lemons

Combine all of the remoulade ingredients except for the salad oil in a blender. Mix until all of the ingredients are well blended. Gradually, add the salad oil in a slow and steady stream. As the oil is added, it will thicken. Cover and chill until the shrimp is ready to be served.

Boil shrimp in 3 to 4 quarts of water and lemon juice until just pink. Top with remoulade sauce. JUNE SONIAT'S CHICKEN-SAUSAGE JAMBALAYA (8 to 10 servings) 4 tablespoons cooking oil 1 pound andouille sausage (substitute kielbasa), sliced into 1/4-inch slices 1/2 pound chaurice (substitute chorizo), cut in small dice 2 fryers, cut up Salt and black pepper to taste 3 cups coarsely chopped onion 1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped celery 1 medium bell pepper, coarsely chopped 3 cloves garlic, minced 1 tablespoon brown sugar 1 tablespoon paprika 28-ounce can tomatoes, chopped 5 cups chicken stock 2 bay leaves 1 teaspoon basil 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 2 to 3 drops hot pepper sauce (or more to taste) 2 1/2 cups raw converted rice 1 bunch scallions, finely chopped 1 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped

Pour the oil into a large heavy iron pot and heat. Add audouille sausage and brown on medium heat. Remove from pot. Add chaurice; when brown, remove from pot. Season the chicken lightly with salt and black pepper. Brown chicken. Remove from pot. Add onion, celery, bell pepper and garlic; cook, stirring as needed, until vegetables are tender. Add brown sugar and paprika; mix well. Add the can of tomatoes, the stock, bay leaves and basil. Add chicken and sausage. Bring to boil; reduce heat; cover and simmer for 45 minutes. Taste to adjust seasonings; add salt and hot pepper sauce, if needed.

Add rice, stirring well. Bring back to boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer on low for 25 to 30 minutes. Add scallions and parsley; stir, turning the jambalaya from top to bottom. Remove from heat, let set for 5 minutes. BREAD PUDDING (From Commander's Palace) (6 to 8 servings) 7 ounces (about 10 cups) stale french bread, cut in 1 1/2-by- 3/4-inch cubes 3 egg yolks 3 whole eggs 1 3/4 cups sugar 4 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg 1/2 cup softened unsalted butter 4 cups whole milk 1/2 cup soaked raisins

Toast the bread cubes in a 350-degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes or until they appear golden brown. Place the toasted bread cubes in a 13-by-9-by-2-inch ungreased pan.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the whole eggs and egg yolks and beat until frothy. Add the sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg. Blend well. Add the softened butter and mix. Add the milk and continue to stir.

Sprinkle raisins over the bread cubes. Pour the milk mixture over the bread. Allow the bread cubes to asborb the liquid and become thoroughly soaked.

Bake in 350-degree oven for approximately 40 minutes. While baking, the pudding should rise 2 to 3 times its original height. Once removed from the oven, its size will decrease and end up slightly higher than the uncooked pudding. Allow to cool slightly. COMMANDER'S PALACE BREAD PUDDING SOUFFLE 2 1/2 cups reserved bread pudding (recipe above) 1/2 cup granulated sugar 6 whole eggs, separated 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar

Place the reserved bread pudding in a large mixing bowl. Set aside. In top pot of a double boiler, place the granulated sugar and egg yolks. Heat over a very low flame. Whip the egg yolks and sugar with a whisk until the mixture is frothy and shiny. Whip into bread pudding until smooth.

Beat the egg whites until frothy, add the confectioners' sugar and beat again until egg whites form soft peaks. Gently fold egg whites into bread pudding mixture. Butter and lightly sugar a 2-quart souffle' dish, which should be filled only 3/4 full, as souffle' will rise. Wipe clean the lip of the souffle' dish. Bake at 375 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes. Serve immediately, topping with whiskey sauce. WHISKEY SAUCE 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch 1 cup sugar 1 cup heavy cream 1 cinnamon stick or dash cinnamon 1 tablespoon butter 1 tablespoon bourbon

In a bowl, mix 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch with water to make 1/2 cup mixture. Set aside.

In a saucepan, bring the sugar, heavy cream, cinnamon and butter to a boil. When the sauce is boiling, whip into it the cornstarch and water. (Note: stir the cornstarch and water until well mixed before adding to the sauce.) Remove the sauce from the fire and add bourbon. Serve warm over bread pudding souffle' or other steamed or baked pudding. RICHARD NELSON'S BAKED CHOCOLATE PUDDING (8 servings) 1 cup sifted flour 3/4 cup plus 1/2 cup granulated sugar 4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa 2 teaspoons baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup chopped macadamia nuts or walnuts 2 tablespoons melted butter 1/2 cup milk 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar 1 cup cold water Whipped cream for serving

For pudding: Combine flour, 3/4 cup granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons cocoa powder, baking powder and salt in large bowl and mix well. Stir in chopped nuts and melted butter. Add milk and vanilla and stir until well blended. Batter will be quite thick. Pour into greased 8-by-3-inch round baking dish.

Combine remaining sugars and cocoa in medium bowl and blend well. Sprinkle over batter. Pour 1 cup cold water over top. Bake at 350 degrees until pudding is set, about 1 hour. Invert hot pudding onto platter. Serve immediately with whipped cream.

Pudding should be served hot. It can be baked early in the day and reheated in 325-degree oven for 30 to 45 minutes.