VEZELAY, FRANCE -- As diners in his three-star restaurant stared in astonishment, chef Marc Meneau took the three unmarked white tubes off the head waiter's tray and squeezed a small amount of one tube onto his tongue. Then he instructed the waiter to open a small unmarked can from which he popped a miniature loaf of bread.

A new trend in France's finest restaurants? Hardly. It was a tasting for the latest in space food. Meneau, the proprietor of L'Esperance, a gastronomic shrine in Vezelay, a few hours southeast of Paris, was host for the public-relations launching in November of his gourmet cuisine into outer space.

It all began with a chance encounter with France's top astronaut. Two years ago, Patrick Baudry, who has participated in American and Soviet space missions, came to Vezelay to visit a friend, Francis Lestienne, who was engaged in neurological research at the National Center for Scientific Research for the French space program. Later, the two men dined at L'Esperance. During dinner, as is his wont, Meneau wandered over to greet his guests. With Baudry and Lestienne, the conversation turned to what astronauts eat in space.

While working at Star City, Moscow's equivalent of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Baudry first proposed taking French food into space. Later, as a member of the 1985 Discovery crew, Baudry introduced French cuisine to his American colleagues. He even contravened a NASA regulation by stowing aboard a bottle of bordeaux wine, not to drink but to see how its contents would react in space.

Recalling his initial venture into space food, Meneau said the idea came to him after he met Baudry and heard his accounts of what astronauts ate. "I thought, why not improve space rations, indeed convert the rations into gourmet food," Meneau recounted. "My dishes are based on pure ingredients, so adapting many of my recipes to the needs of astronauts did not seem an overwhelming challenge. The space meals would have to be nutritious and easy to digest, just as with any truly good food."

Baudry was also taken by the idea. In the fall of 1986, he, Lestienne and Meneau were in business. They formed a company, Baleme -- a combination of the initial syllables of their surnames -- to produce and market a line of food products, not only for consumption in space but for the adventurer on the move.

Contacting the space program was not a problem for Baudry, a consultant on manned space travel for the French company Aerospatiale. Baudry's work on the European space program Hermes, in which Aerospatiale is participating with the Centre National des Etudes Spatiales (CNES), led him to Novespace, a consulting firm that CNES controls. Baleme contracted with Novespace to carry out a marketing study. The products were ready when CNES solicited bids from food companies in France in January 1987 for the 1988 Franco-Soviet space flight.

Meneau said he felt absolutely inspired by the challenge to create gourmet dishes to be consumed in space, and to expand his culinary skills to maintain three-star excellence in the confines of a spacecraft. He began developing dishes immediately.

"Today we have 25 dishes," he said. "Our market has been enlarged to include round-the-world sailors, Artic expeditionists, desert explorers and mountain climbers. Each product had to be adapted to a specific environment and situation. For example, a driver in the Paris-Dakar rally needs food that can be eaten easily while driving in desert conditions. We named our products, La Cuisine de l'Extreme, a line of dishes aimed at the expeditionary traveler."

Today, 80 percent of this cuisine is derived from the very recipes that earned L'Esperance its stars. "Our goal was to make available enjoyable meals; we didn't invent a new culinary system, we simply produced gourmet in cans, tubes and sacks," Meneau said.

As a crew member in both Soviet and American space programs, Baudry was acquainted with both cuisines. "The Russians have a preference for canned food," he said. "They do not yet have confidence in tube or dehydrated food."

Baudry complains that Soviet space food is starchy, heavy and tasteless. He noted that, unlike the American space ships, weight was never a problem for the Soviets, who found it easier to load up with canned products. But NASA was concerned with efficiency more than taste. In U.S. craft, water is produced on board and dehydrated food is used. This helps to reduce weight at liftoff.

Baudry observed that dehydrated scrambled eggs, as an example of packaged space food, might be nourishing but they were tasteless. Meneau was confident that he could prepare food for space that would be delectable.

Cooking methods for many dishes did not have to be altered. The dishes are packaged in the manner that seems most practical and that will preserve their taste. For example, some of the dishes, such as pigeon in lentils, saute'ed duck in a green pepper sauce and a mustard-based chicken dijonnaise, are prepared in the usual way and are then cut into bite-size pieces and packaged in cans. The dishes are miniature versions of those served at L'Esperance. "This is what sets us apart from the space program's traditional suppliers," Lestienne said.

Other more liquid or "spreadable" foods -- rillettes of goose, vanilla cream and a vegetable soup with leeks and parsley -- are pasteurized and put in the tubes in very much the same way that other manufacturers package fancy shampoos and facial scrubs. Because the tubes are so much easier to eat from than cans, which require forks and knives, even some solid foods are minced or pure'ed and packaged in tubes, including celery, shrimp and herring.

Portions are kept small, as astronauts require several small meals during the day that can be easily digested. Getting Meneau's dishes into ration-size cans and tubes was not a problem; it was the sterilization process during packaging that posed the biggest problem.

"A number of dishes we tried either lost their taste or consistency when heated to 70 degrees Centigrade during the process," Lestienne recalled. "Meneau had to abandon a favorite beef bourguignon recipe because the noodles turned to mush when the can was heated."

An earthly -- and earthy -- gastronome, Baudry felt there was nothing basically wrong with Soviet and American space food. "It was just good ordinary food," he said. His objective at Baleme, however, is "to create exceptional food for people in exceptional situations."

"When you are far from home, whether in space, the Arctic or in places more mundane, it's nice to be able to eat dishes that remind you of your family or familiar surroundings," said Meneau, who recounted an incident that Henri Pescarolo had related to him: "During his (Pescarolo's) round-the-world flight, a mechanical problem occurred and required some time to resolve, but he and his crew had available excellent bread and pa~te'. The effect of this good food was a boost to their morale. Pescarolo became convinced of the psychological lift people in such situations receive from something as seemingly simple as good food when far from home."

Meneau, who rarely leaves his village in the Morvan region, modestly said: "I don't do anything. I've never climbed a mountain or wandered across a desert. I only cook. I dream a lot. I have sporting fantasies, and I would like to excel at sports, but I don't have the time -- or perhaps the talent. I live these sport challenges through my food."

Meneau explained that while he is creating a dish, ideas often come to him. "Here at L'Esperance we invent 300 new recipes a year, so among these 300 it's easy to modify one so that it can be used in the cuisine extreme."

Meneau's philosophy and technique are to let the product retain the natural taste and aroma that it possesses. "I strive for a nutritious product," he said. "I aim for very brief cooking, allowing the ingredients to keep their natural savor as far as possible."

All the culinary creations are done at L'Esperance. When Meneau is satisfied with a dish he sends it to a food laboratory in Dijon. A biochemist runs the product through a series of tests for nutritional value and its adaptability for outer space. He sends back the results with recommendations, after which Meneau incorporates the necessary changes, returning the finished dish to the laboratory. When it passes inspection, a tasting is organized at Meneau's L'Esperance. If Meneau, Baudry and Lestienne are satisfied, they send it to the factory, where one of Meneau's chefs supervises its production.

Baleme's only real competition comes from La Comtesse du Barry, a specialist in canned foie gras and other southwestern French delicacies. Originally a deluxe charcuterie at Gimont in the Gers region, the company now has stores all over France.

A number of Baleme's products, along with six prepared canned dishes from La Comtesse du Barry using recipes from chefs Pierre Roudge of La Belle Epoque and Lucien Vanel of Vanel, both in Toulouse, are being considered by the French National Institute for Space Studies for recommendation to the Soviets for their 1988 space flight in which a French astronaut, Jean-Loup Chretien, will spend a month in space.

Michel Vieillefosse, an official at the institute, said the products will be tested further before final recommendations are made. He also indicated that the products will have to be set aside for six months to test for deterioration.

Meneau is in the process of negotiating a contract with NASA, whose scientists recently came to Paris to sample Baleme's products.

The NASA and Soviet space ventures will represent the first time that gourmet chefs are producing food for astronauts. Beginning this month, Baleme's products will be sold in stores all over France and, shortly thereafter, in the United States. For the moment, the products developed in Meneau's kitchen are made in a factory in the Perigord region. He has no desire to set up his own factory.

"I'm a chef-owner," Meneau said. "I have no desire to expand my restaurant business. I travel once a year to the United States, where I give cooking classes. I also go to keep in touch with the American market and the American response to French cuisine."

Meneau, whose wife looks after the kitchen when he is away, keeps a close tab on innovations in American food trends. "I go to the States to see where American cuisine is going," he said. "Our role is to be aware of its progress, of what is going on in order to coordinate our efforts with its evolution."