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You'll Never Cook Lunch in This Town Again

Jeff Smith's ''Frugal Gourmet's Culinary Handbook'' -- Can America's favorite TV chef cure a writer's fear of frying?

''Do I get to wear a hat?'' I ask. ''You know, one of those big white puffy things?''

The Frugal Gourmet gives me a look as though I'd just sprinkled Bac-Os on his bearnaise. We're standing in the kitchen of his Seattle duplex, and he and his 29-year-old assistant, Craig Wollam, are trying to teach me to cook what they call an easy recipe from their new book, The Frugal Gourmet's Culinary Handbook.

''How much experience do you have in the kitchen?'' the Frugal Gourmet asks. ''Can you cook anything?''

''Sure,'' I tell him. ''Grilled cheese, tuna fish, popcorn...''

He rolls his eyes. ''We've got our work cut out for us, Craig,'' he says. ''They've sent us a virgin.''

Okay, so I'm no kitchen magician, but you don't have to be to know that the Frugal Gourmet, whose real name is Jeff Smith and who is 52 years old, is the hottest thing to hit cooking since the Serrano pepper. Forget the upscale appeal of Julia Child, the antic allure of the Galloping Gourmet, the Cajun charms of Paul Prudhomme. The Frugal Gourmet's half-hour PBS series is the most-watched cooking show in the history of the genre, savored by 5.5 million viewers a week. His six cookbooks have sold over 4 million copies, making him America's number-one cookbook author. And he's recently branched out into marketing, endorsing a line of kitchen products, including garlic presses, skillets, and funnels, that are sold at Frugal Gourmet displays in department stores across the country.

Six-foot-three, bearded and bespectacled, Smith even looks the part of a TV chef. On camera, whether gleefully attacking a piece of meat with a cleaver or chuckling over a spilled glass of burgundy, his persona is soothing, unpretentious, and unabashedly cheery. He makes viewers believe that, under his tutelage, even the cooking impaired can feel at home on the range. ''That's the secret of my success,'' he says. ''I don't threaten anyone. I teach people that cooking is something anyone can do.'' That is why I am here, I tell him, to provide him with his ultimate challenge.

The dishes Smith has chosen for me to master are beef filets with oysters and chicken with carrot sauce (see recipe on next page). Like all the recipes in his Culinary Handbook, they date back to the original Culinary Handbook, a 1904 tome written by pioneer cookbook author (and inventor of the Fearless Dishwasher) Charles Fellows. ''It's been out of print since 1933,'' Smith says. ''I saw a copy in a used-book store and thought it was just wonderful. The sort of book that's great to read with a nice glass of sherry. So we decided to update it and revamp it.'' Wollam begins browning two perfectly marbleized chunks of prime filet mignon in a skillet, and Smith pours me a glass of white wine. ''Can I help with the cooking?'' I ask.

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