Anyone who thought gastronomy was just for fun and profit ought to take a new look at the field. Gastronomes are getting serious about food -- downright scholarly, in fact.

Early this month nearly 400 of them (restaurateurs, winemakers, food producers, writers and just plain diners) gathered in Santa Barbara for the American Insitute of Wine and Food's first Conference on Gastronomy. And the program was a lot heavier than a cassoulet.

To be sure, there was the usual parade of culinary extravaganzas -- lunches prepared by Marcel DeSaulniers of Williamsburg's Trellis restaurant and by Michel Stroot of The Golden Door, and an eight-course dinner (including a tiny roll of raw beef with truffle pure'e and mung beans) by Piero Selvaggio of Valentino in Los Angeles. And certainly wine and conversation flowed together like the nearby surfers and their waves.

But never before has caviar fueled such serious panel discussions as "Values, Lifestyles, and the Advancement of Gastronomy" and "Can Gastronomy and Nutrition Successfully Coexist at the Same Table?" Rarely have chefs, cardiologists, anthropologists and fast-food purveyors shared a podium. And it is unprecedented for the invitation to three days of such luxurious eating and drinking to be accompanied by an academic reading list.

So what did it accomplish? Mainly it set the AIWF on a solid footing as a center for gastronomic scholarship, a process that had been inaugurated by the organization's acquisition of a rare book collection -- now housed at the University of California at Santa Barbara -- and furthered by its unique quarterly, "The Journal of Gastronomy."

Even with the enthusiastic boosting by honorary chairman Julia Child, who helped form it a half-dozen years ago, this institute has had a shaky start, and still struggles for members and funding. But this conference was seen as an important step in stabilizing the institution. It gathered under one roof (and on one terrace, for each morning began with an outdoor continental breakfast buffet) a combination of participants who might otherwise have recognized little in common other than a fondness for vine-ripened tomatoes.

And it taught each of them something about the other.

For example:

* The future lies with the trend setters who drink imported beer, according to James Ogilvy of Stanford Research Institute's Values and Lifestyles (VALS) Program, which relates lifestyle to product consumption. At present, he said, the largest group in our society is the Belongers -- "outer directed" traditionalists who own freezers and eat Jell-O. Next in size is the Achievers, also "outer directed", whose preference is for high-gloss food such as elaborate cakes, and who busily consume frozen entrees without much interest in health and naturalness. But the "inner directed" groups are growing, and thus most interest the media; they include the younger I-Am-Me group (who seek new ideas and eat frozen pizza and corn chips); the more mature Experiential group (who are reaching 30 still single, emphasize sports, eat yogurt and appreciate seasonings and sauces, washing all down with mineral water), and the older Societally Conscious (highly educated and prone to eat natural cheeses and ethnic foods). All this shows, says Ogilvy, that this society in this decade values experience over things, quality over quantity, diversity over uniformity, and we reflect it in our eating patterns: a search for inner satisfaction and a preference for the innovative.

* That led to a joke told from the audience: A woman asked her son what he wanted for dinner. He thought a bit, then finally answered, "I don't know. I think we've already had everything."

* Dining is more than a social statement, countered Norge Jerome, nutritional anthropologist at the University of Kansas. It is also a personal statement, a source of comfort and pleasure. She, too, evaluates social patterns by monitoring dining patterns. In the United States today, she observed, there is an unprecedented blending of gastronomy and nutrition; not only does a large segment of the population now link food with nutrition and nutrition with health, but health specialists now link nutrition with attractive and appealing food. Along with what she called the New Nutrition Consciousness, Americans emphasize saving nutrients in food preparation. They also look for ways to save time and energy, but are unwilling to give up personal involvement with preparation, even when using labor-saving appliances.

* It was suggested by the audience that Americans may be obsessed with food and with recipes, but that they want to eat rather than cook. Sue Huffman, food and equipment editor of Ladies' Home Journal, disagreed partially, speaking of women "who hate to cook and love to cook" -- the hating it being on weekdays and the loving it on weekends. Author and consultant Barbara Kafka predicted a return to cooking, at least as a reaction to the charge that Americans don't cook. She said, "You only have to get to a real consensus like that, and watch out!"

* Americans are consuming fewer calories than before, said Jerome, and all socio-economic levels are consuming about the same number of nutrients per calorie. In other words, Americans are eating pretty similarly, "consuming from a common table," she said.

* In light of the American preoccupation with diet, one wonders why the French, so preoccupied with food, do not tend to be fat. Suggested Patricia Wells, restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune in Paris, it may be because the French have a respect for food, which affords them an equilibrium about it. They do have a problem with alcoholism and cholesterol, though, she said. Thus they are beginning to drink less wine in restaurants, and to realize that "we can't eat as we did in the past."

* Eating in America has shifted from the home to the restaurant -- which covers everything from the employe cafeteria to the fast-food stop: Americans now view the restaurant as an extension of the home, said Jerome. Ruth Reichl, restaurant editor for the Los Angeles Times, put it even more strongly: "In California the kitchen is becoming the least-used room in the house." That is despite kitchens being filled with machines that make things nobody even heard of 10 years ago. A generation of "restaurant junkies" is forming -- and moving east, taking the chefs with them, said Reichl. For an article on the subject she interviewed a man who said he hasn't worked in 22 years because he has been too busy eating. Nancy Newhouse of The New York Times agreed that food has become "theater, entertainment and news," and reiterated the entire theme of the conference with, "Food has taken on intellectual respectability as a subject."

* Americans nowadays eat casually -- grazing, it has begun to be called -- and depend on dinner to balance their nutrition; the balanced meal has evolved into the balanced day, said Jerome. Thus, Americans are experimenting with the structure of the meal, she said; the new-age menu is a series of small plates and bowls rather than a main plate with meat, vegetable, potato and beverage. They seek "freshness, lightness and naturalness with a touch of the exotic." And no longer do they eat the same way throughout their lives. Americans' eating, concluded Jerome, is continuous experimentation: "Many people today experiment with, embrace, then discard a variety of lifestyles sequentially."

* Whatever Americans are eating, they are doing it in a hurry, according to Huffman. Thus, her magazine, for the first time in its history, is using Minute Rice, for the May issue is featuring 15-minute menus (four microwave, four of doctored manufactured products, four from scratch).

* While Jerome may find Americans eating similarly in their overall consumption, Kafka emphasized that, "Food has been historically a class-differentiating activity." And what distinguishes man from animals in eating is that, "We are the only animal that prepares our food." What's more, we also have communal eating, and taboos; only man practices self-deprivation in eating. In fact, in 18th-century America, about a third of the year was one kind of religious fast day or another. Food in America has also been a way of climbing the social ladder: immigrants have used occupations in food industries as entry-level jobs into society.

* Although clearly there is a trend towards lightness, an emphasis on nutrition and a movement away from eating salt and fat, said Huffman, "I don't think there is that much fish being cooked out there." According to her, 23 percent of the population eats 62 percent of the seafood -- and she emphasized that the number of people cooking seafood is considerably lower even than the number eating seafood. The problems with seafood are that it is expensive and not readily available, particularly high-quality seafood. In France, said Wells, much more fish is being consumed than in the U.S.

* For the first time in history, boasted T. George Harris, editor of American Health, Americans are taking responsibility for their own health. Even so, four times as much money is spent in this country on studying animal nutrition as studying human nutrition, he said. Jane Brody, health columnist for The New York Times, linked nutrition to the self-interest of the food business: "A sick or dead consumer doesn't buy much of anything in the way of food." She has re-educated her palate, she said, so that cream makes coffee taste greasy to her, and rich foods are unappealing. "I submit, salt dulls the tastebuds," she said, adding that Americans don't know what a real green bean tastes like, only a salted green bean. In order for meals to preserve health, she said, they should be high in fiber ("the Roto-Rooter of the digestive tract"), rich in complex carbohydrates ("the only category of food that has not been linked with long-term health risks when consumed in large amounts") and rich in fruits and vegetables. Most of the native cuisines around the world adhere to these standards. Brody herself feeds her family of four, which includes two teen-age boys, on a half-pound of meat at a meal.

* On the produce scene, look for continuous discoveries. Said Frieda Caplan, whose Frieda's Finest produce specialties introduced the sunchoke and the spaghetti squash to Americans across the country, there are 80,000 edible species of plants in the country, and only 100 are being used. Up-and-coming vegetable fashions include a color explosion (purple kohlrabi, golden beets, purple lettuce and yellow peppers), the kiwano (an African cucumber or "jelly melon" which looks like a fish or an interesting paperweight) and a new hybrid pepper with the thick walls of a bell pepper, plus the aroma and flavor of chili pepper and a skin that doesn't have to be peeled. The latter, she said, will revolutionize the pepper because the cook can control its heat by how thoroughly the seeds are removed. Just coming on the market are apple-pears from France, with stems dipped in red wax; and salty, tangy sea beans, grown on the coast of Oregon. And of course the mushroom trend continues, with oyster mushrooms and shiitakes thriving.

* Tortured presentations of food have had their day, according to Sheila Lukins of the Silver Palate. "Look for clarity of taste and ingredients," she said, "food that you can tell how it tastes by how it looks."

* "Grilling is big, and half the world still calls it barbecuing," Huffman said in listing current American eating trends. She also included Chinese, Mexican and health food -- which doesn't slow down the consumption of desserts, though. As for the famous California Cuisine, said Reichl, "Nobody can tell you what it is, but last year everybody was talking about it."

* Along with food fads, look for new food verbs; Charles Lynch of the Saga Corporation, which has feeding programs in hospitals, schools, corporate dining rooms and restaurants, talked of "menuing" and "trending out."

* Americans are schizophrenic about food, said Brody. They eat a baked potato because it is healthy, but ladle high-calorie stuffings on it. They add high-fat dressings and salt to the salad bar. Their granola is full of sugar and fat, their pastas have high-fat sauces. And food processors are producing low-salt soups and vegetables but haven't reduced the salt in their normal products.

* "About half the women and two-thirds of the men in this society need to be doing something constructive about their diet," said Dr. William Castelli, director of the Framingham study, which in 14 years has found that half of the heart attacks occur even with a cholesterol level of 150 to 250 (the American Heart Association recommends a level under 200). The crucial fact is not cholesterol but the ratio of cholesterol to HDL (high-density lipoproteins), he said. That ratio is not only improved by a higher proportion of fats in the diet being poly- or mono-unsaturated fats, but can be improved by exercise and fish consumption -- fatty fish perhaps even more than less-fatty, white fish. "We have a whole new feeling about fish," he said, asserting that fish makes your blood less likely to clog. He is even taking lobster and shrimp off the "bad" list, despite their cholesterol. Alcohol, in moderation (two drinks a day may be ideal), can also improve the cholesterol-HDL ratio, although he was inclined to be very cautious in recommending that.

* Factors that relate to lower cholesterol, according to Dr. Rosalyn Alfin-Slater of the School of Public Health at UCLA, are fiber and pectins, complex carbohydrates, vegetable proteins, hard water versus soft water, zinc-copper ratio, milk products and alcohol. Mono-unsaturated fats may be safer -- at least in regard to cancer -- than poly-unsaturated fats. She conducted a study of the effect of eggs on serum cholesterol level -- which was criticized because it was in part funded by egg producers, and also because it was a study of people outside of a controlled environment -- in which the most clear conclusion was, "When you pay for people's meals they eat more."

* "We'd like Americans to cut fat intake by half," said Castelli. People eat the same thing night after night, he claimed, and most of those things are bad for them. "The average American only eats 10 recipes. To save your life I only have to find you 10 new recipes," he concluded.

The session adjourned to a lunch of 400 calories prepared by Michel Stroot, chef of The Golden Door spa in California. Afterward, Julia Child summed up her reaction to the nutrition debate and its culinary finale: "I hate nutrition . . . but I ate everything like a wolf."

Here is the recipe for Stroot's main dish at the luncheon.

* CHICKEN BREAST IN LIME WITH PEANUT GINGER SAUCE (Michel Stroot, The Golden Door) (4 servings, 275 calories per serving) 4 large half chicken breasts, boned, skinned, defatted, and cut into 1/2-inch strips 1/2 cup lime juice Few drops hot pepper sauce 1 tablespoon sesame oil 1 cup shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, sliced thin 2 tablespoons natural peanut butter 1 tablespoon arrowroot diluted in about 2-3 tablespoons water 1/4 cup chicken broth, if needed 1/2 cup each scallions and sweet red pepper cut into 1-inch long strips FOR THE DRESSING: (Makes about 1/2 cup) 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce 1 1/2 tablespoons each rice vinegar and red wine vinegar 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh ginger, coarsely chopped 1 teaspoon dry basil 1 teaspoon sun yuen hing (sichuan peppercorns) 1 tablespoon water 2 teaspoons honey 1 clove garlic 1 twist of lemon 1/2 cup peanut oil

Marinate the chicken 2 hours in the lime juice and hot pepper sauce.

Blend dressing ingredients (except peanut oil) at high speed until smooth. Slowly add 1/2 cup peanut oil, continuing to blend until smooth.

In heavy skillet heat 1 tablespoon sesame oil, drain chicken breasts and stir fry for 2-3 minutes. Cover and let simmer for several minutes until almost done. Add shiitake mushrooms, 1/2 cup of the dressing and peanut butter and let it come to a simmer. Thicken with arrowroot. If too thick, add 1/4 cup chicken broth. Blanch red peppers and scallions in boiling water for 30 seconds. Sprinkle over top. Serve immediately.