Tucked in the basement of a stately town house on Louisburg Square - the elegant heart of Boston's historic Beacon Hill - is a bright, warm kitchen where aspiring gourmet cooks hone their skills. Although most of the students are adults, Chefs & Co. also caters to smaller customers.
''Cooking is a totally creative outlet for children if you allow it to be,'' says Polly Yates, director of Chefs, a private cooking school and catering service.
As a mother of four, Mrs. Yates decided to offer children's classes during school vacations when her own children began inviting their friends over to do projects in the kitchen. She says she enjoys stimulating children's enthusiasm for cooking and teaching them skills they can use the rest of their lives.
Daniel Lemaire, head chef of the Hotel Inter-Continental in New York, holds two-hour children's classes on Saturday mornings for youngsters 7 to 14 years old. ''These are my first classes with children, and I love it,'' he says. ''The children are all very, very excited. We want to teach them something they have never done before.''
Chef Lemaire's classes prove that children's cooking capabilities are not confined to simple sweets. During the series of six classes, they learn how to make tarts, croissants, quiche, and such delicacies as scrambled eggs with caviar and filet of beef with mustard seed.
''We show them that they have nothing to be afraid of,'' says Mr. Lemaire, who believes children's active involvement in the kitchen will help them entertain easily as they grow older.
He says his own 61/2-year-old daughter, Laurence, loves to make tarts, although she is a little too young for full-scale cooking. When children reach age seven, he says, they seem to be more interested in what they are doing and are more responsible than at earlier ages. He says the first lesson children should learn in the kitchen is safety.
Mrs. Yates finds children are usually conscientious in the kitchen and sometimes can be more careful than adults. She emphasizes the importance of keeping pans on the back burner with handles out of the way, and closely supervising children when they use knives.
At home, she says, working in the kitchen is attractive to children, because they are usually eager for parental attention and enjoy working side by side with mom or dad.
''The secret is you must have the patience to allow a child to participate while you are making a meal,'' she says. ''Most children will readily adapt and enjoy the kitchen if they are given some freedom. It loses its enjoyment if the activity becomes too directed or the parent is too conscious of preconceived results.''
In her Christmas cookiemaking workshops, Mrs. Yates encourages children to roll and twist the dough into imaginative shapes. ''I find if they follow diagrams they are not nearly as creative,'' she says. ''When they are on their own, they make things that would never occur to me to make out of cookie dough.''
Mrs. Yates says children's foodmaking preferences are often surprising. Her own children love to make mayonnaise, for example; one son has a great time making breaded chicken - brushing on the egg glaze and covering the pieces with crumbs.
Children enjoy making things that allow them to participate freely and are not too fussy, she finds. Bread is a favorite because it is fairly indestructible and children have fun kneading the dough. Sherbets, ice creams, and ethnic foods are also popular.
Mrs. Yates says it is important to use real ingredients and proper techniques in teaching children, because this gives them a good base to build from. Box mixes, she says, are not effective as learning tools and don't offer the same sense of accomplishment as creating something from the start.
Mrs. Yates has found five- and six-year-olds can handle about an hour of solid cooking time. ''Beyond that, their minds start to drift unless you feed them something,'' she says with a laugh.
In both Mrs. Yates and Chef Lemaire's classes, the children do all the preparation work, including measuring and mixing of ingredients. They finish the product up to the point where it goes into the oven or onto the stove. Then adults take over the actual cooking or baking.
Cleanup is also an important part of learning to cook, Mrs. Yates says.
Older children often like to learn how to make an entire meal so they can go home and cook for their parents, she says. They also like to make foods such as pizza or crepes, starting from scratch and creating their own variations, so they can give a party for their friends.
Her summer classes for teen-agers have been particularly successful. ''Kids who are not academically motivated can experience a degree of success and confidence in the kitchen they do not achieve in the classroom,'' Mrs. Yates says. Later, the skills they learn may lead to satisfying employment opportunities in the growing culinary profession.