COOKING exams were going on all over England when I was there recently to visit. As an American cooking school teacher, I was intrigued to discover that many of the directors I called were busy invigilating. The word invigilate is not used often in the United States, but it comes from the Latin vigilare, to watch, and is similar to our word proctoring.
Exams are something the cooking schools in England feel strongly about. The sentiment is an excellent one, for it establishes a criterion of scholarship absent in the US, where few cooking schools have any way to determine acquired knowledge or competency.
It had been 10 years since I had studied cooking in London, and I found on returning that some of the best culinary instruction in the world is still available there.
One of the first features I noticed was the wide range of classes open from summer to winter, all year round, for one day or for up to several years. Cordon Bleu
I started with the Cordon Bleu, where I received my training. This most established of the English schools has changed management recently. But even with its new young director, Sarah Nops, the school still has the traditional ``Cordon Bleu'' atmosphere.
The Cordon Bleu set the tone for many of the other schools with its participation and demonstration classes, as well as schedules arranged so students may attend anything from an afternoon or evening demonstration to a year-long diploma course. Students range from inexperienced young girls of 16 to mature American housewives and professional chefs.
The motives for studying include everything from parents' desires to have their daughters adept in the art of cooking to male chefs wanting their credentials from the Advanced Certificate, a course designed for those with previous training who wish to gain further technical knowledge.
Emphasis is on classic techniques and recipes rather than on ``doing your own thing'' with available ingredients. Week-long summer courses are filled long in advance, and there are waiting lists for all courses.
The waiting lists move rapidly, however, and eager students can usually find a place if they are persistent. For information, contact The Cordon Bleu Cookery School (London) Ltd., 114 Marylebone Lane, London WIM 5FX England. Phone 01-9355-3503. Eggleston Hall
To get to Eggleston Hall, another cooking school, I took an 8 a.m. train from London through the lush north countryside to Darlington in County Durham. Testing or invigilating was going on at Eggleston, a grand country home with a myriad of bedrooms and multiple large kitchens.
Three of the kitchens here have a 1-to-8 teacher-student ratio. Other kitchens vary in teacher-student ratio, depending on the size of the class.
The Eggleston school has a country view of rambling hills, greenhouses, and gardens, and an overwhelming feeling of hospitality and charm.
Rosemary Gray, the owner-director, is Cordon Bleu-trained and loyal to that school's traditions and goals. The Hall kitchens are set up in a participation kitchen manner, with stoves flanking the walls and preparation tables centered.
Most of the students are young -- in their late teens or early 20s -- and they board there during the week, leaving on weekends. After a full school year from fall to spring they take an exam.
In addition to cooking classes, flower arranging and secretarial courses are also offered. Groups of non-full-time students may also book a block of rooms and a classroom for a week or more.
For information, contact Rosemary Gray, Eggleston Hall, Barnard Castle, County Durham DL12 OAG England. The Grange
Another train trip, this one down to Bath, England, gave me the chance to see a cooking school with a completely different personality -- ``The Grange,'' in Beckington, owned and directed by Ann Norris.
Another dedicated professional who has adapted her Cordon Bleu-type school to her own style, Ms. Norris offers courses of study of various lengths, available year round to individuals and groups.
The course includes dining with Ms. Norris, whose own graciousness sets standards for the school's students. For information, write The Grange, Bechington, Nr. Bath, Avon BA3 6TD England. Phone 0373 830607. La Petite Cuisine School of Cooking
Lynn Hall, of La Petite Cuisine School of Cooking, has a serious professional school with classes taught by chefs, including England's revered Anton Mossiman of the Dorchester Hotel, as well as herself.
Contemplating a move closer to the center of London, Ms. Hall also teaches classes on food processors and other subjects of interest to the casual host/hostess or gourmet hobbyist.
A look at the school's brochure gives a hint of the quality and intensity of Ms. Hall's teaching. For information, write: La Petite Cuisine, 50 Hill Rise, Richmond, Surrey, TW10 6UB. Telephone 01-840-7583. Leith's School of Food and Wine
This school was founded by Prue Leith, who trained at the Cordon Bleu Schools in both London and Paris. A cookbook author and television personality, she also owns a leading catering firm and a top restaurant.
Small wonder that her school offers training on all levels as well -- providing the basis for a wide variety of related cooking careers from running a restaurant to working on television commercials.
The principal, Sally Waldegrave, and her co-principal, Sally Procter, contribute a great deal to the ambiance of Leith's, with warm personalities and good senses of humor combined with a firm hand.
Leith's offers nonprofessional lessons and evening classes as well as summer courses. For information, write to Leith's School of Food and Wine, 36a Notting Hill Gate London W11 3HX. Telephone 01-119-0177. (Leith's plans a change of location this fall.) Tante Marie
Another excellent school is Tante Marie's, with full-time staff including directors Mr. and Mrs. John Child. All teachers are qualified to work in ``State Schools'' or ``Colleges of Further Education.'' Practical work is held in four different beautifully equipped kitchens. Lectures are given in a separate demonstration theater.
Now accepting students over age 16 for more serious classes (including 11-week certificate as well as two-year diploma courses), the school will start offering summer courses as well in the summer of 1986.
Courses for the nonprofessional include cake icing as well as special demonstrations for groups. For information, write: Tante Marie School of Cookery Ltd., Woodham House, Carlton Road, Woking, Surrey GU21 4HF, England. Phone (Woking 05862) 269957. Ken Lo's Chinese Cookery School
For a completely different type of school, Ken Lo's Memories of China Chinese Cookery School -- directed by the dean of Chinese cooking in England, Kenneth Lo -- has as teachers not only Mr. Lo but the two top chefs of the Memories of China Restaurant.
The school offers more than Chinese cooking lessons -- for example, lessons taught by Suzy Benghiat in Middle Eastern cookery, as well as other ethnic cooking lessons. The school welcomes group bookings from other schools, catering establishments, or other professional bodies, and arranges special cooking sessions.
Mr. Lo's wife, Anne, adds much to the school with her energies and concern for students. For information, write: Ken Lo's Kitchen, 14 Eccleston Street, London SW1, England. Telephone 01-730-4276. Middle Eastern cooking
Suzy Benghiat also teaches from her home, specializing in Middle Eastern cooking. She does both demonstration and participation classes but prefers participation.
Like many of the English cooking school teachers, she thinks participation is the best way to learn. I wasn't able to stay for a class but did have a taste of a wonderful grape-leaf-wrapped concoction, a pastry-wrapped cheese, and mint hors d'oeuvres.
Ms. Benghiat's classes are usually the once-a-week variety, but she is happy to work with groups on other arrangements and time schedules. For information, write Suzy Benghiat, 156a Old Brompton Road, London, SW5 OBE England.
Nathalie Dupree is a cooking school teacher in Atlanta and is president of the International Association of Cooking Professionals. She is currently writing a book on Southern cooking and working on a television series of cooking lessons.