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.

The two lock eyes in something like panic. ”No, no, no, no,” Smith insists. He doesn’t say ”don’t touch anything,” but I get the message: I shall learn by observing.

”At the turn of the century,” Smith continues, launching into a favorite lecture on the ”golden age” of culinary history, ”Americans were eating better than ever before — better than any king in the world had ever eaten. Then, around World War II, food in this country went down the tubes. We started doing crazy things. We began making meat loaf and lumpy mashed potatoes. It was tragic, just tragic. Burn the hell out of the outside,” he says to Wollam, ”but I want the inside still alive.” Back to me: ”I blame Mrs. Swanson and her chicken potpies. That was the beginning of the end. That’s what started the whole frozen-food thing. It ruined American cuisine. As far as I’m concerned, Mrs. Swanson is the Antichrist.”

If Smith’s passion for the epicurean arts seems a bit evangelical, understand that he began his career as a Methodist minister. It wasn’t until the late 1960s, while serving as campus chaplain at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., that he heard the call of the kitchen. ”My students were all members of the peace movement,” he recalls, ”and none of them were eating properly. They were eating fried celery and brown rice, garbage like that. So I started giving cooking lessons.” Those evolved into a college course, ”Food as Sacrament and Celebration,” in which he explored the cosmic and theological implications of proper diet and nutrition.

Smith left the university in 1972 and opened a Seattle restaurant called the Chaplain’s Pantry Restaurant and Gourmet Shop, an instant hit that landed him a cooking show on the public-TV station. ”I called it Cooking Fish Creatively,” he says. ”It was just awful. The set was tiny, with this artificial brick wall and pea green refrigerator. We had no money, so I had to go around the local markets and ask for free fish.” Smith later renamed the show The Frugal Gourmet at the suggestion of his wife, Patty, a retired bookstore owner, and soon he was peddling his first cookbook, a small, self-published spiral-bound edition he sold at his restaurant for $4.50. Then, in 1983, after a heart-valve operation, he moved the show to Chicago (where he tapes for nine weeks a year). Around that time he appeared on Donahue: More than 45,000 viewers called in to order his homemade book, and suddenly The Frugal Gourmet was known in kitchens across America.

”I have no formal training at all,” Smith says proudly. ”I’m not a trained ‘chef.’ But I can read a recipe the way a musician reads music.”

Here Wollam interrupts. ”The steaks are ready,” he says, gently setting them onto a plate.

”Next we’re going to deglaze a pan with a little wine and garlic and parsley,” the Frugal Gourmet says. ”See what we’re doing here? See how easy it is?” I nod, lying. ”Are you sure I can’t help?” I ask.

”Next we put in the oysters and let them poach a bit in this very light sauce,” Wollam replies.

”Oysters and beef — it’s a wacko combination,” Smith says. ”But God, it’s good eating. This is just the sort of thing that Diamond Jim Brady would order back in 1904 — after he’d eaten three dozen oysters first, of course.”

”Looks great,” I tell them, ”but isn’t filet mignon a bit on the expensive side? I mean, isn’t the Frugal Gourmet supposed to be frugal?”

”Frugal doesn’t mean cheap,” Smith says, a bit testily. ”It means you don’t waste anything. It means you use all the ingredients.”

Wollam lovingly stirs the oysters, and their briny aroma fills the kitchen. He lifts the pan from the burner and pours the sauce over the steaks with the delicacy of an artist painting. Smith snaps open a napkin and ceremoniously lays it on the counter next to a knife and fork.

”Ben,” he says, ”this is as close to heaven as you’re likely to experience on this level of reality. This is an amazing thing you’re about to eat.”

Wollam slides the plate in front of me, and the two of them lean over my shoulders as I take my first bite. ”Well?” the Frugal Gourmet asks. ”What do you think? How is it? Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it a kick?”

It’s the best beef-and-oyster dish I’ve ever had, I want to tell him — but I’m too busy forking it in to talk.

”And it’s so easy to make!” Smith says, beaming. ”All you’d need are the right ingredients and even you could cook it.”

Maybe — but I wouldn’t bet the Cuisinart on it.

Carrot Sauce
Makes about 1 quart

1 1/2 pounds carrots trimmed and peeled
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup half-and-half
1 1/2 cups Velouté sauce
1/2 cup dry white wine

Slice the carrots 1/4 inch thick and place in a small pot. Add the garlic, salt, and just enough water to cover the carrots. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.

Drain and, in a food processor, purée the carrots. Add the half-and-half and blend until very smooth.

Return the purée to the pot and add the Velouté sauce and wine. Simmer for 5 minutes. Adjust the salt, if needed.

This is a very versatile sauce that is especially good with roasted chicken or pork.