TAKING SOME HEAT: Novice chefs have been crowding the kitchen of the Oval Room (800 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-463-8700), where chef Paul Luna conducts "extreme cooking classes" on Friday and Saturday nights.

It's a program with some amusing twists on the usual format: Interested students call in advance for a reservation, throw out some ideas of what they're interested in making, then show up at the appointed hour to start slicing and dicing their way to dinner under the watch of Luna. While the amateurs learn to sear and saute, their guests wait in the dining room, nibbling on snacks sent to them by Oval Room cooks.

So far, the chef reports, about 20 people have braved the heat of the working kitchen to prepare a meal for friends or family. (The $75 average cost per person includes wine, but not tax or tip.) The classes are especially popular with couples who have presented mates with the "gift" of cooking for them.

"You're here to play," Luna tells his students, whose custom-designed meals have included risotto, ginger-crusted salmon and strictly vegetarian menus.

Yet the amateurs are also privy to the less-than-glamorous side of the restaurant experience -- shouting cooks, for instance, and saunalike temperatures. "I tell them to dress casual," Luna says of his students, then laughs at the memory of one participant who showed up to cook wearing high heels and a diamond ring.

When seven student-cooks crowded into the kitchen on a recent Saturday night, followed by an unexpected number of walk-in guests in the dining room, Luna admitted that the scene behind the scene got "chaotic." But "that's the beauty of it," the chef enthuses. "They get to share the experience of the kitchen."

It turns out reality goes only so far. Luna says he has yet to ask one of his visiting cooks to do the dishes.