A pastry chef learns the craft through a slow-baking process of 10 years' schooling and apprenticeship, grueling hours under the close eye of a master chef, learning the temperament of yeast doughs, the art of spun sugar.

But in today's tight labor market, restaurateurs are getting desperate. And so it was that Susan McCreight Lindeborg, former chef at the Morrison-Clark Inn on L Street NW, hired a lifeguard from a friend's swim club this summer to fill a long-vacant assistant pastry chef position. She chose a 23-year-old college graduate with a degree in religion, a flair for cooking and zero experience with pastry.

"The preference is always to hire someone in the [food] community," said McCreight Lindeborg. "But when you can't find that, you hire people with a great interest in food that you can train."

All across the city--and the country--restaurateurs are feeling the crunch of the nation's lowest unemployment rate in 30 years. Behind every swinging kitchen door is another story of coping with an incomplete or inexperienced staff--a tough task for an industry that lives and breathes on service.

"Virtually everybody I talk to tells me they are short-handed on all levels, from managers on down to dishwashers," said Eric Peterson, president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.

While all segments of the economy are scrambling for workers, the restaurant industry is particularly starved for help. It's the largest private-sector employer in the country, with 10.2 million employees, according to the National Restaurant Association. And as more of the food dollar is projected to be spent outside the home, the problem will worsen. In the next 10 years, the trade group estimates, the industry will need 2 million more employees to accommodate its growth. Already, restaurateurs across the price spectrum list "finding qualified/motivated labor" as their top challenge, according to a survey by the association.

Locally, the situation is particularly grim. There are more than 7,000 restaurants in the Washington area--an increase of about 40 percent since 1993. That's a bad match with the local unemployment rate, which at 2.6 percent is significantly below the national average. And the availability of less strenuous, better-paying jobs, especially in the local high-tech industry, makes it easy to see why restaurateurs are employing new tactics to attract and retain workers.

In many ways, though, the labor shortage has finally forced restaurants to catch up. "In the old days, a lot of restaurant owners exploited their help," said Francois Dionot, director-owner of L'Academie de Cuisine, a local cooking school. Restaurant staffers, who work long, physically demanding hours, had no benefits, no vacation. The attitude was "just be happy that I gave you a job," said Dionot, whose graduate chefs are choosing among "two or three jobs at least."

More restaurants are offering health benefits, 401(k) plans, signing bonuses, cash awards for referring new hires and better hourly wages. When Ann Cashion opened Cashion's Eat Place in Adams-Morgan in 1995, it "seemed perfectly fine" to start a line cook at $8 a hour, with $10 as the ceiling, she said. Now, she said, she "can't see starting anybody below $10."

Caterers, too, must up the ante. Susan Lacz, an owner of Ridgewell's, said the company is paying drivers of its distinctive purple trucks $18 to $19 an hour plus benefits, up from $14 not long ago. Despite increases in pay, Ridgewell's has nearly 40 positions to fill, including dishwashers, receptionists, cooks and drivers, Lacz said.

To fill the void, restaurateurs are sharing part-time workers, calling each other with pleas for a grill cook, or tapping into alternative labor pools--and not just former lifeguards. McCreight Lindeborg--whose lifeguard-pastry chef is now the sous-chef at Nathan's in Georgetown--also employed a Securities Exchange Commission lawyer and a sound technician to work her Sunday brunch line. And for extra help for Saturday weddings or parties, she kept a stable of workers including a political consultant and a weekday staffer of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Bringing in the unschooled is not optimal for delicate cooking. Even after several years of training, a pastry chef "wouldn't be great," said Roland Mesnier, executive pastry chef at the White House, a man who has been creating dessert magic for 40 years. But in tough times, a body is better than an empty position.

Mary Richter, chef-owner of Zuki Moon in Foggy Bottom, sought out a refugee agency to find desperately needed dishwashers. Richter hired two people from the agency who turned out to be mismatched for the job: For religious reasons, the employees, both Muslims, wouldn't wash the pot used to make the spicy pork soup.

And more than half of restaurateurs polled in a recent restaurant association survey said they had recently hired or intended to hire an employee who was a former welfare recipient.

Robert Egger, director of the D.C. Central Kitchen, a downtown facility that trains recovering addicts and welfare recipients in food service and handling, said restaurateurs nowadays are much more "willing to give these men and women a shot." The most recent group of 19 graduates who completed the 12-week course had their pick of 60 jobs.

Some restaurateurs are even considering snatching staff from other establishments. To find employees, "I tell everyone from delivery drivers to people I meet on the street," said Barbara Mancini, owner of the two Mancini's cafes and Catering by Mancini in Alexandria. "I hate to say it, but the next step is stealing from other people."

Bob Sierralta, general manager of Bittersweet catering in Alexandria, has taken that step. When someone at a restaurant gives him good service, he hands out his card. "I'm constantly recruiting," said Sierralta, who recently hired a pleasant staffer at Roy Rogers who got him a cup of coffee. He also left his card with the chef at an upscale restaurant who likewise ended up working for Bittersweet. "I liked the restaurant so much, I hired the chef," he said.

Bittersweet has even hired its customers. A young woman waiting to order a sandwich at Bittersweet's cafe struck up a conversation with a man behind the counter, who, unbeknown to her, was the owner. She mentioned that she was interested in the food business, and the next thing she knew, she was on board, Sierralta said. "You just need to be very creative."

Creative recruiting in the food world also means engaging people with food. Andrew Zimmerman, director of marketing for Foodtemps, a national agency that hires people to do food and cookware demonstrations, always takes his espresso machine with him to college job fairs--along with Godiva chocolate. "They can see the chocolate," Zimmerman said of the job-seekers. "But they can't get to it until they talk to me."

Senior waiters at restaurants owned by Virginia-based Great American Restaurants (Carlyle Grand, Mike's American Grill, Artie's, Sweetwater Tavern, Silverado) get a monthly house check for $50 to $100 for food at any one of the restaurants, said Mike Ranney, one of the company's partners.

Even pilfering is becoming a more accepted offense. "In any restaurant, there is sneakage, leakage and slippage," said Bruce Sandground, owner of the Sign of the Whale in Falls Church. "Restaurants aren't as tight as they used to be with these things." In other words, the waiter who sneaks a free beer at the end of his shift or takes home the rest of the chicken wings is more likely to be forgiven than fired.

The obvious upshot of a restaurant with a stretched staff is that "everybody who is working has to work harder and longer," said Peterson, the restaurant association chief. "In working harder and longer, there's always the question of what happens to the quality of the service."

To many diners, this isn't a question. Some diners are simply "throwing in the towel," said Bob McKay, a local restaurant consultant who is opening his own restaurant in Bethesda. "Diners are saying, 'Service was bad last night. It was bad last week, too. But what are we going to do? Stop going out to dinner?' "

Still, behind the scenes, committed staffs are chipping in, whether it means managers loading the dishwasher or chef-owners shucking oysters.

That's exactly what happened to Cashion when she opened another restaurant, Johnny's Half Shell, at Dupont Circle last summer. Cashion said she firmly believes "you should hire somebody because that's who you want to hire." But because there wasn't "anybody out there," she opened the new place with hardly any line cooks. As a result, "I was basically shucking oysters every night," Cashion said.

But there's an upside to it. "Now I'm a really good shucker," Cashion said with a laugh. "So if my business goes belly up . . . I can get a job."