STUDENTS were packed into the bleachers of the basketball court tighter than Spanish olives in a jar. But the cheers last month at the Culinary Arts Division of Johnson & Wales College weren't for baskets scored, but for dishes served.
There, at one end of the gymnasium, sandwiched between a stack of 21 blue tumbling mats and a stainless steel kitchen-on-wheels, Master Chef Roger Verge dazzled five tiers of white-clad, black-shoed students.
To an audience so attentive you could have heard ice melt, he gave a 31/2 -hour demonstration and lecture on the style of French cuisine that has brought him a host of trophies and medals from around the world. His two restaurants in Provence, France, have been studded with stars by the ancient and honorable Michelin Guide.
Chef Verge was the 29th chef to give both time and technique as part of the Johnson & Wales Distinguished Visiting Chefs Program during the past five years.
The menu he prepared was haute cuisine. It included a small packet of Truffles, Lamb Mignons with a Mild Garlic Puree, Stewed Nicoise Vegetables, and Fricasse de Saint-Pierre a la Creme de Petits Legumes. Despite the high French fare, he peppered his talk with a lot of home-cooking advice and practical tips:
* ''Remember, there's a lot of water in onions; they must be sauteed until they begin to dry out.
* ''If you use an electric stove, choose pots that have a very flat bottom so the contact with the burner is direct.
* ''Chop lots and lots of garlic all at once. Mixed with olive oil, it keeps three weeks in the refrigerator. Do the same thing with fresh herbs like basil. These are much better than dried and will keep for months.
* ''When making a mousse of fish or meat, make sure ingredients are very cold.
* ''Always start boiled potatoes in cold water. Putting them in hot water will toughen them.
* ''Sift flour into the cold water before you boil vegetables like cauliflower, celery, and salsify - it keeps them nice and white.
* ''Black pepper may not look as good in a white sauce, but it's much tastier than white.
* ''Be careful not to process cream too long in your food processor; it can turn to butter.''
Chef Verge's hours and efforts did not go unappreciated. ''Where else could I see someone of his caliber give a demonstration without going to France?'' remarked an approving student.
''This type of program is one reason I came up here,'' said a budding future chef whose hometown is in New Jersey.
The visiting chef program is only one of the reasons the Culinary Arts Division here has mushroomed. Another is a Cook 'n' Tour program both here and abroad offered to students and nonstudents.
From a starting class of 141 students 11 years ago, the school has grown to a student body today of some 2,500 - making it the largest school of its kind in the world. Students the world over have flocked to it.
Classes are limited to 15, so there's plenty of close observation and hands-on instruction. Students are taught all facets of the food industry and share both the preparation and service sides.
Meals prepared throughout the day by one group of students are served to them by those learning the ''up front'' side of the industry.
Dr. Morris Gaebe, the college president, beams with pride as he introduces two chefs from the school chosen to participate in this year's Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt, West Germany. He's especially pleased that although Johnson & Wales offers a certificate two-year program, ''More than 40 percent of our students stay on an additional two years for an associate degree.
''Graduates receive an average of more than five job offers,'' he adds.
No surprise, considering the estimate of the National Institute for the Foodservice Industry that 250,000 new employees are needed each year to keep pace with the growing needs of the food industry.