If you've had dinner at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Washington, your steak might have been grilled by Julie Thoman, 25, who found her calling in Chantilly High School's culinary arts program.

Dining at the elegant Bailiwick Inn in Fairfax City? That sauteed mahi-mahi with Provencal relish probably will be prepared by Executive Chef Nick Cool, 24, who began his training at the Loudoun County school system's Monroe Technology Center.

And if you've ever ordered room service at the Sheraton Hotel in Atlanta, you were the guest of Thoman's classmate, Mohamed Naga, 25, assistant food and beverage manager.

These professionals are graduates of high-school cooking classes that aren't just about snickerdoodles anymore. Today's teenagers not only learn to prepare and present gourmet meals: They also run mini-restaurants and even cater weddings. In some schools, students design menus, order food in bulk and balance the books.

Thoman remembers her first taste of the class. "I walked in and saw all these kids rushing around . . . and the chef was telling them what to do, and I'm thinking, 'Oh my gosh, this is cooking,' " she said. "I got bit by the bug."

Culinary experts say that teenagers have been swept up in the nation's growing fascination with food. More people eat out more often, flip through cooking magazines and watch TV chefs bake and broil. Twenty years ago, many Americans viewed cooking as "something we had to do to eat," said Andrew F. Smith, editor of the new Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. Now, he said, food is entertainment and artistry -- and an attractive career option for some teenagers.

In much the same way, wood shop students now build houses from the ground up and sell them, and auto shop students repair entire cars. Educators say that students who struggle academically -- including those who speak another language at home or have learning disabilities -- can blossom in these expanded programs, seeing purpose in the words and numbers they must learn.

"Because it's a tactile, hands-on thing, they thrive here," said Douglas Wright, administrator of Fairfax's Chantilly Academy, the professional and technical studies program within Chantilly High. Teresa Smith, a Montgomery County restaurant trades teacher and former chef at the Tabard Inn in Northwest Washington, calls it "a different kind of smart."

To many aspiring young chefs, battles of the "Iron Chef" are must-see TV, and such celebrity chefs as Wolfgang Puck have movie-star stature. About 20,000 teenagers tune in to the Food Network each day during prime time, according to Nielsen ratings. One Fairfax teenage girl called "Food 911" star Tyler Florence "the hottest chef." A few boys at Chantilly admitted to having a crush on Rachael Ray, of "30-Minute Meals."

Joy Anderson, culinary arts teacher at Monroe Tech, said that students in the program 15 years ago didn't plan to go to college and that many ended up in low-paying food-service jobs. Now, each year, more than half of her seniors go on to professional culinary programs, including New York's Culinary Institute of America and Johnson & Wales University, which has six campuses in the nation. Last year, the seniors in Clay Doubleday's class at Chantilly High won more than $300,000 in scholarships to cooking programs.

On a recent weekday morning in the kitchen at Chantilly High's Chantilly Cafe, fragrant peanut soup steamed on the stove. Young chefs placed slices of pork tenderloin on clouds of whipped sweet potatoes. Cups of coconut creme brulee cooled in the refrigerator, each awaiting a pass of the blowtorch.

"Okay, guys," Doubleday shouted. "Let's go get them served."

Two hours later, the students had served 48 people, including teachers, parents and a visiting official from a nonprofit group.

Interest among Fairfax students is so high that a fifth culinary arts program was added this year. Total enrollment is about 300 students, 50 percent more than in 2000. In Washington, schools are revamping cooking and nutrition classes to create a culinary arts program at two high schools.

Simon Imas, 18, a graduate of Montgomery schools' restaurant trades program, was hooked by "Iron Chef," a show in which dueling chefs each have an hour to prepare a meal built around a surprise ingredient.

Imas said that his parents work long days -- his mother at the World Bank, his father as an accountant -- so he started pitching in at home a few years ago by making dinner, and it became more hobby than chore. He is heading to the Culinary Institute of America this month.

"I don't think I'll ever get tired of it," Imas said. "After I make something creative, I try to make it better."

Wright said that vocational education is gaining sophistication. As a student in Chantilly's auto shop class in 1983, he spent the year balancing and changing tires. "It was kind of a warehousing situation. If students were having trouble . . . counselors looked to the vo-tech training centers," he said. "We're not training them now -- we're educating them."

Each school system takes a slightly different approach. In Loudoun, students host lunches for staff members and run a snack shop. But they are also responsible for ordering food and supplies for the meals they serve. Iris Wilson, program specialist for D.C. schools' Academy of Hospitality and Tourism, said students there eventually will run two in-school cafes and learn to budget and buy the food.

Doubleday treats the Chantilly Cafe, which is usually open twice a week, like a professional restaurant, and students learn by running it -- cooking, tasting, serving. His classes don't focus on the financial side; the students graduate knowing how to create soup stock and mix a vinaigrette.

Doubleday was a sous-chef at what is now the Westfields Marriott -- where he once prepared dinner for the first President Bush -- when Fairfax County offered him a job in 1993. At the time, he said, the class had been largely about making food from mixes, and there were mice in the storage room.

Now, school administrators show off the cafe. Doubleday's students have fed the Virginia Board of Education and visiting educators from Germany and Japan. A few years ago, Penn State University football Coach Joe Paterno stopped in when he was courting a player.

On a recent morning, Sarah Falk, 17, a senior, dipped a plastic spoon into a vat of cream of mushroom soup and decided that it tasted only so-so. Doubleday sent her for hot sauce and Worcestershire.

"How do I know how much to add?" Falk asked.

Doubleday's reply: "Until it tastes good."

Josh Kirby, 25, of Fairfax said that Doubleday's class changed the way he thought about food and his future: "He lit the fire under us," Kirby said.

One of Doubleday's mantras is to do "as little as possible" in preparing food, advice Kirby said he relied on when he was executive chef at Willow Grove Inn in Orange, Va.

"Take a carrot -- you show the carrot as much respect as you can," said Kirby, who now manages a Falls Church coffee shop. "It's not what you add to the dish; it's what you take away."

Chantilly High School student Carlos Helena, right, gets tips from teacher Clay Doubleday during the lunch crunch at the Chantilly Cafe.On the menu: creme brulee. Students at the cafe have served foreign educators and a famous football coach, among others.For culinary arts students, lunch at the Chantilly Cafe is like a final exam every meal. It is open twice a week.