Young chef practices nouvelle cuisine - American style

What's a nice Wellesley College graduate doing lugging stock pots in a hotel kitchen? Having the time of her life, that's what. Cindy Black is the young executive chef of Sheppard's, a small, stylish restaurant in the Sheraton Harbor Island East Hotel in San Diego.

As such she has garnered bouquets of praise by resident and visiting gourmets for her originality, finesse, and culinary skills.

But Miss Black considers her move from French literature major to winner of culinary awards a natural progression.

The daughter of a United States Foreign Service family, she was born in Bonn and grew up in the Boston area. ''We have traveled a lot and experienced a wide range of cuisines. My father loved to cook and sparked my interest from the time I was a little kid. In fact, he still teaches me things all the time,'' she says.

''He studied with Madeleine Kamman in Newton Center, Mass., before I did. I didn't begin studying cooking in earnest until I finished Wellesley (College).''

But from that time on, her interest accelerated. She studied in Paris, then landed a job at Le Cabanon in the Landes, where she learned the regional cooking of Gascony.

''The restaurant was small, and as the cook's helper I learned to do everything, including work with quails, pigeons, larks, and other birds,'' she says.

''That experience taught me that a good cook never wastes anything. Even now I melt the skin of the duck to make the pate.''

Then came an apprenticeship in Boston and a stint on Cape Cod. From that evolved a job at Apley's in the Sheraton-Boston, which led to an offer to develop an elegant little restaurant in a new Sheraton in San Diego.

Since November of 1982, Chef Black, with a crew of 10, has been creating and offering Sheppard's diners such dishes as Eggplant Bisque, Smoked Carpaccio With Tarragon Sauce, Grilled Puget Sound Oysters With Black Butter, and Warm Duck Salad Vinaigrette.

Such appetizers are often followed by Sweetbreads Raviolis With Chanterelles and Morels, Chervil-Scented Snapper, and Loin of Lamb With Fennel and Red Peppers.

The Black signature is to use indigenous foods in a light, imaginative way, more or less nouvelle cuisine - American style.

''There are three things you have to be able to do to be considered good,'' she believes. ''They are sauces, pates or charcuteries, and pastries.''

Anyone who has sampled any of the dishes mentioned above, punctuated with a light-as-a-cloud Hazelnut Souffle or Raspberry-Chocolate Marjolaine, will have no doubt that Cindy Black has mastered all three.

The New England-bred chef is a cheerful emigrant, reveling in the wide range of fresh foods she finds available year-round in her local markets.

''California produce is awesome,'' she said. ''When you see wild mushrooms and sun-ripened tomatoes as prevalent as peas and beans, you feel constantly challenged to do something interesting with them.''

With all that year-round California sunshine, does she miss New England at all?

''Of course,'' she said emphatically. ''I love Boston, and after all, you can't have a cup of hot chocolate after ice skating on a sunny December day in San Diego.''

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