The lights come up precisely at 7 p.m., spotlighting the trim man in an impeccable white shirt, dark tie and blue-and-white striped apron.

His stage is an elegant, carefully designed kitchen that includes a 22-foot-long work counter with four electric and four gas burners, two gas and two electric ovens, a food processor, a mixer, a microwave oven and a refrigerator/freezer.

A large, angled mirro on the ceiling reflects the inside of every bowl and pan to the two dozen students seated in front of the work counter.

Each student clutches a five-page schedule that lists the menu with precise preparation times, ingredients and procedures. All eyes turn to chef-instructors Francois Dionot.

"Tonight," Dionot begins in his gentle French accent, "we will prepare les pommes fourrees au jambon, le canard au poivre-vert and la creme au chocolat."

As a collective a"ooohh" of delight rises from the class, Dionot is off and running, preparing apples stuffed with ham, duck with green peppers and chocolate dessert. For the next 2 1/2 hours he will be a combination of chef, magician and instructor, deftly balancing the tasks of teaching, entertaining and creating, a gourmer dinner.

From blue cupboards come enamed cookware, professional knives, copper pots and many kitchen gadgets - from an elaborate chinois to a stainless steel cherry pitter.

Dionot's continual patte is witty, warm, bright and informative. Like a circus ringmaster, he simultaneously sautes shallots, arves a duck and checks the consistency of a dessert, all the while explaining each step and answering students' questions.

Occasionally he will pass around an item - some dough to feel or some pepper to semll. But Dionot does all the cooking. Students learn by watching the lecture/demonstration, asking questions and practicing the dish at home.

After Dionot completes the cooking, which he finishes in two hours almost to the minute, the students sit down to the meal of delicacies.

Dionot's assistant, who silently and efficiently cleans each pot and pan after it is used, distributes wine and food while Dionot finishes last minute garnishes. the last half hour is a social time when students chatter among themselves and with Dionot.

"Some of the best meals in the city are served in this room," said sales engineer Justin Hess, biting into a forkful of apples stuffed with him. A 34-year-old avocational chef, Hess holds a red-ribboned diploma from the school, signifying that he has attended 50 classes and is a member of the coveted "confere des canardiers."

"The duck press is our emblem," explained Dionot, who prepares a lavish celebration banquest highlighting a 100-year-old recipe for "Canard La tour D-Argent" for his red-ribbon students. "Each student turns the duck press and becomes a member of our confrere (brotherhood)."

Following the Cordon Bleu philosophy, the course is non-cumulative so students can begin at any time. After eight weeks they receive a blue-ribboned diploma, and after 30 weeks receive a white-ribboned diploma.

the three P's - purchasing, preparation and presentation - are stressed, and each lesson features a new menu including an appetizer, entree, side dish and dessert. More experienced students may mix with first-time students in any of the classic French classes.

"But everybody is very friendly and here to learn, so no one makes you feel funny asking questions," said homemaker Gail Kaufmann, a former "potato salad and jello drop-out" who is taking her first series of courses. "It's really exciting and really addicting."

"It's a very convivial, relaxed atmosphere," added paralegal Sally Watkins.

Run jointly by Dionot and businessman Donald Miller, the two-year-old L'Academie de Cuisine offers many other classes including a professional class, special group lessons, mini Saturday classes and international cooking classes.

About 225 students, representing a range of professions, attend class each week. About 35 percent are male, and at least one romance has blossomed over the stoves of L'Academie.

"It was his omelettes that did it," joked Cynthia Kauff, who attended a recent class as the guest of her date, a cardiac surgeon and avocational cook.

"This is something we like to do together," smiled secretly Mary Britain at her husband Tom, a naval architect. "He does most of the cooking, though."

Bill Wallace began taking classes almost two years ago when he was commuting from his home in Pittsburg, Pa., to his job in the District. "I got tired of eating in restaurants," shrugged Wallace, who has attended more than 120 classes.

Since the Wallace family moved to Arlington recently, he is now accompanied to classes by his wife Jane. "We're a two Cusinart family," he boasted.

While class members represent diverse ages, backgrounds and professions, they share a common enthusiasm for cooking in general and for Francois Dionot in particular.

Justin Hess summed up the affection students feel for Dionot: "He comes on very warm, and very genuine. He'll even answer your questions over the phone if you're stuck on something - he's terrific."