Chef Jackie Etcheber has spent the past six years refining her craft and still can't put a label on it.

It's not French, though her sauces are distinctly so, and her desserts are elaborate.

It's not Chinese, though this native of Hong Kong resorts to the culinary memories of her childhood in creating her menu.

It's not new American, despite the display of au courant ingredients -- wild mushrooms, goat cheese, exotic fruits, farm-fed chickens -- on artfully arranged plates.

"I can't even give a word to my own dishes," admitted Etcheber of the fare served in the restaurant she opened in the fall of 1982 and named after herself.

Her signature dishes reflect an artisan's sense of form and color. Etcheber said she spent six months perfecting her hot seafood salad, which began as a plate of mussels and linguine on a bed of radicchio, to which ma che and goat cheese were later added for contrast. The updated version has been expanded to include sea scallops and a dollop of salmon caviar, because "I needed something red," recalled Etcheber. "The salad is complex," she acknowledged, "but it fits your taste, it coordinates -- it won't knock you out."

Using her elaborate, oversized platters as a canvas, Etcheber creates vivid culinary still lifes. "I start off with colors," noted the chef, "and think to myself, what will go well with the fish? I look at the avocado, the papaya, and keep changing" the design. She leaves the skin on her entree of striped sea bass with shrimp, avocado and peppers. Her spectacular chocolate bag with white chocolate mousse -- napped with a bright red raspberry sauce, garnished with kiwi, strawberries and whipped cream, then served on a black-bordered, floral-trimmed plate -- epitomizes Etcheber's eye for color.

As a finishing touch, main dishes arrive garnished with edible flowers, such as nasturtiums, daylilies, daisies, pansies, sage flowers and purple hibiscus. "If it blooms, it works," said Etcheber.

Owning her own restaurant wasn't exactly what Etcheber had in mind when she arrived from Hong Kong, a 17-year-old student with $1,000 and dreams of managing a hotel. But following a year of college in Iowa and graduation from the school of hotel management at the University of Texas, she moved to Chicago and pursued a series of apprenticeships that tapped her interest in things culinary. Hired first by the Ritz-Carlton as an assistant manager in 1976 (where she met and later married sommelier Pierre Etcheber), she moved on to become dining room manager at the Park Hyatt a year later. After only a month there, she was promoted to the position of "executive steward," a move that transferred Etcheber into the kitchen but which she wryly described as "a big title for a dishwasher." From there it was on to the Hyatt Regency, and at her husband's suggestion, the purchase of her first eatery, a modest taco shop.

Etcheber transformed the business into a thriving coffee shop, plunging time and money into a virtual one-woman show, in which she not only served as cook, but took orders and kept check on supplies, Etcheber recalled. Eighteen months later she sold the place for $20,000 and left to hone her skills in the kitchens of La Mer and Le Ciel Bleu before opening Jackie's.

Not the usual course for a woman whose father believes a "woman's place is in the home."

"My mother's organization is how I do my kitchen," said the chef while working in the confines of her tiny restaurant kitchen, which she shares with nine other employes. "My mother did a lot of parties. She could entertain 20 people contentedly by excusing herself to the kitchen for just half an hour." Moreover, Etcheber has adapted a number of her mother's dishes to her menu, teaming sticky rice and tree ear mushrooms with chicken, for example, and pairing sea cucumber with venison. The sauces, she offered, are her own ideas.

*Etcheber isn't worried about becoming too trendy. "We cook what is solid, what will stay," she insisted. "One year it's French, another year it's Cajun," she observed of dining fads. "We're working for consistency."

A stickler for detail, she admitted there's no time for relaxing in her field. The chef has tough words for her peers: "They can't cheat the public anymore." There's much more stress on cooks to perform, she added. "The public is well read, well educated, they eat out more often and they travel more. They know what they're eating and what they're getting for the price," said Etcheber, whose most expensive entree sells for $17.95. Above all, she noted, "We don't want to intimidate."

Running a restaurant is no easy task, acknowledged Etcheber, who once came to work only to discover the water pipes had burst. (She and her staff nonetheless served luncheon, cooking in ankle-deep water.) "There's lots of aggravation. Sometimes I say, 'Why am I doing this,' but then people will hold my hand, tell me I made them happy," Etcheber said in wonder. "This is a stranger who appreciates my food! Then I know I have accomplished something."

Despite the work involved in running a restaurant five days a week -- she rises at 5 a.m. and rarely gets home before midnight -- Etcheber joined her husband last summer in opening Cafe d'Artagnan, named after the fourth musketeer. "I will never open up another restaurant outside of my touch," vowed Etcheber, who noted that the cafe is located "just down the street" from Jackie's, which supplies its desserts.

But that doesn't prevent the determined chef from plans to launch an as yet unnamed restaurant next door to Jackie's -- by her 34th birthday on May 8, she hopes. Etcheber is concerned that premature talk might bring bad luck -- "It's my nature to worry a lot," she confided -- but she revealed that the restaurant will feature a show kitchen and a wine bar. And the food? "It's going to be weird," laughed Etcheber. "It won't be American or Chinese or French." She took time off a while back to scout the restaurant scene in France and visited California last year in search of ideas for the undertaking. Already she is at work designing what she thinks will be her hottest dessert since the popular chocolate bag -- seven wavy layers of ultra thin cookie sheets, shaped like clouds and layered with berries and whipped cream. She hasn't got the technique down pat yet, but the confection has a name: Seven Heaven. HOT SEAFOOD SALAD (4 servings)

FOR THE MUSSELS:

2 pounds extra-large mussels

2 extra-large shallots, chopped

1 cup white wine

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

FOR THE SCALLOPS:

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 pound sea scallops

1 tablespoon scallion, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

FOR THE LINGUINE:

1 pound linguine

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

FOR THE MUSTARD BUTTER SAUCE:

1 teaspoon seed mustard

1 cup Beurre Blanc Sauce (recipe below)

TO ASSEMBLE:

1 head radicchio, washed

1/4 pound goat cheese, cut in 4 pieces

4 teaspoons salmon caviar

*Scrub the mussel shells. Rinse in cold water. Drain and combine mussels with the shallots and wine in a large saucepan. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes until the mussels open up and pull away from the shell. Remove mussels from shells; debeard if necessary. Wash and reserve shells for garnish. Season and saute' the mussels in olive oil until lukewarm. Reserve, keeping warm.

Heat olive oil in a saute' pan. Add the scallops, scallion, salt and pepper. Saute' scallops until warm and lightly brown. Reserve.

Cook linguine until al dente in 3 to 4 quarts salted boiling water. Drain and saute' in olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Reserve, keeping warm.

Warm the mustard in a small saucepan. Whisk in the Beurre Blanc Sauce. Reserve, keeping warm.

To finish: In the center of each warm serving plate, place 1 leaf of radicchio. Place saute'ed linguine on the leaf. Top with goat cheese and caviar. Arrange 4 mussel shells on each plate around the radicchio. Put 1 big mussel in each shell. Place scallops between the mussels. Garnish with any leftover mussels. To serve, spoon mustard butter sauce over the scallops and mussels and drizzle sauce over the linguine. BEURRE BLANC SAUCE (Makes approximately 5 cups)

2 cups white wine

10 large shallots, chopped

2 tablespoons whipping cream

2 pounds softened unsalted butter, quartered

Salt and pepper to taste

*Combine wine and shallots in a saucepan. Reduce to 1 tablespoon of liquid. Add cream and heat until warm. Whisk in butter, bit by bit. Season to taste. Strain and reserve in a warm place until use. STRIPED SEA BASS WITH SHRIMP, AVOCADO AND PEPPERS (4 servings)

*Halibut or red bass may be substituted for striped sea bass. Also, any colorful saute'ed vegetables may substitute for the garnish suggested in this recipe.

4 striped sea bass fillets (with skin on for color), 8 ounces each

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 avocados, peeled, cored and sliced

Juice of 1/2 lemon

12 shrimp (about 1 pound), peeled and deveined (or 2 pounds of unpeeled shrimp)

1 green bell pepper, julienned

1 yellow bell pepper, julienned

1 red bell pepper, julienned

16 nicoise olives

12 miniature Italian yellow plum tomatoes

12 miniature pattypan squash

Salt and pepper to taste

FOR THE LEMON BUTTER SAUCE:

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 cup Beurre Blanc Sauce (recipe above)

*Season the fillets with salt and pepper; saute' in 1 tablespoon olive oil, skin-side up, until flesh is no longer transparent. Place in a 400- to 450-degree oven for approximately 5 minutes. Peel, core and slice the avocados; sprinkle with lemon juice. Saute' the remaining ingredients in 1 tablespoon olive oil until shrimp are cooked. Place the sea bass fillets on serving plates. Top each with 1/2 of a sliced avocado. Surround the fillets with the saute'ed shrimp and vegetables. Spoon Lemon Butter Sauce around the fillets and serve.

To make the sauce, warm the lemon juice in a small saucepan. Whisk in the Beurre Blanc Sauce. CHOCOLATE BAG WITH WHITE CHOCOLATE MOUSSE (12 servings

12 ounces white chocolate, chopped

1 cup milk

1/4-ounce envelope unflavored gelatin

1 cup whipping cream

4 egg whites

Squeeze of lemon juice

FOR THE CHOCOLATE BAG:

2 1/2 pounds semisweet chocolate, melted

12 waxed paper bags, approximately 3-by-8 1/2-inches, with square bottoms

FOR THE RASPBERRY SAUCE:

16 ounces frozen raspberries

TO ASSEMBLE:

Fresh strawberries

* Melt the white chocolate in the top of a double boiler over barely simmering water. In 1/2 cup of milk, dissolve the gelatin.

Bring the remaining milk to a boil. In a bowl, gradually combine the melted chocolate and milk. Add the dissolved gelatin and stir until mixture is smooth and well blended. Cool the mixture over a bowl of ice water, stirring occasionally until partially set.

Beat the whipping cream until stiff and refrigerate. Beat egg whites to soft peaks. Add the lemon juice; beat until stiff. Carefully fold together the whipped cream and egg whites. Gently add chocolate mixture. Refrigerate mousse overnight (or up to 3 days).

To make the chocolate bags: One-quart freezer bags can be adapted. Cut each bag to 5 inches tall and fold over top 2 inches. Open bag fully; tuck bottom corners under to form flat base. Secure with tape.

With a brush, "paint" the inside of the bag with melted chocolate. Repeat with all of the bags. Freeze overnight (bags will hold for 2 to 3 days in the freezer).

For the sauce, pure'e raspberries in a food processor. Strain and refrigerate.

Spoon chilled raspberry sauce onto serving plates. Just before serving, in a cool place, carefully peel the waxed bag off the set chocolate. Spoon the white chocolate mousse into the chocolate bag and top with stemmed, halved strawberries. If desired, garnish with whipped cream, sliced kiwi and whole strawberries.