Cooking is hot, and the competition to teach everyone from would-be pros to stay-at-home chefs is getting intense.

The region's biggest cooking school, Pasadena's California School of Culinary Arts, is branching out to open a Kitchen Academy in Hollywood, and national kitchenware retailer Sur La Table offers classes at its L.A. and Santa Monica stores.

Into this fire has jumped Eric Crowley, a 41-year-old former bill collector whose love of food led him to the stove. A two-year stint as a prep cook at well-regarded Reed's Restaurant in Manhattan Beach got him into the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, and having paid his dues in others' kitchens upon graduating, he has shifted to teaching by opening Chef Eric's Culinary Classroom.

Classroom cooking, he said, "is instant gratification. You take a raw product and transform it into something that appeals to the eye and (can) satiate you too."

The question is whether it also pencils out. Since Crowley teaches "hands on" courses, in which students actually prepare dishes rather than just watch an instructor demonstrate technique, classes are capped at about a dozen students. Tuition runs anywhere from $75 for limited three-hour workshops on how to prepare a specific ingredient, meal or cooking technique workshops cover, for example, Italian and Spanish cuisine, brunches and knife skills to a 10-week advanced course at $1,000. He doesn't offer a degree, which can cost as much as $40,000 at an accredited two-year school.

The business has reached the point where Crowley, who works seven days a week, is considering another instructor. He currently does all the teaching and uses his part-time help to buy the food, help students locate the correct utensils and clean up after classes are over.

Crowley's costs run about $100,000, including rent, food and equipment, some of which needs to be replaced periodically (food processors and blenders tend to break). Crowley gets his produce from distributors serving the restaurant and hotel trade.

Housed in a 1,000-square-foot building off Pico Boulevard just west of Century City, Chef Eric's took space formerly occupied by a vegan bakery. He estimates that about a third of his students are on a culinary career path, but wants that number to more than double within a couple of years.

"This was a complete life-changing, career-changing step," said Stephanie Goldfarb, a Chef Eric's graduate who has gone from working for a health club chain to becoming a private chef. "It was all about discovery. Cooking is one of those skills where you are always learning."

For now, the clientele is made up largely of amateur enthusiasts merely wanting to perfect their techniques for making a b & #233;chamel sauce or de-boning a chicken. Students range in age from 17 to 60.

TV exposure

The culinary teaching industry has exploded in the last decade, due in part to the exposure of cooking on the Food Network, as well as the focus on food preparation on popular shows such as Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

ShawGuides, a trade publication to the hospitality industry, lists 56 career cooking schools and 85 recreational cooking schools in California. That's up from 27 career schools and 45 recreational schools in 1995.

"Chefs have become celebrities," said Dorlene Kaplan, editor of ShawGuides. "It used to be just the person in the kitchen making the food, but now people go to the restaurant to see the chef making food. A lot of people see this as a prestigious career that isn't academic."

Sur La Table's 22 schools nationwide specialize in single-day classes, many of which are the demonstration variety hosted by traveling chefs and cookbook authors.

The chain's classes are not targeted to aspiring professionals, one of Chef Eric's aims, and serve as a way to bring in traffic for the core business of selling kitchenwares. "These cooking schools are not just a place of education," said Robert Danhi, chef and instructor at Sur La Table's L.A. school and Crowley's mentor at Reed's Restaurant. "It's a social activity."

Crowley has been joined by his fianc & #233;e, Jennie Shields, who left her job as an office administrator at an investment banking firm to oversee marketing and on-site cooking parties for corporate clients.

She doesn't know how to cook. "I had to quit my job so I could see him," said Shields. "If I want to see him, I have to work 15 hours a day with him."

Crowley got his first taste of teaching in 1999 when he landed a part-time gig at the Epicurean School of Culinary Arts in West Hollywood. To supplement his income, he also worked as a chef for the Patina Group, catering parties.

He figures his chances of success with a small cooking school are somewhat better than that of opening a restaurant, which is considered one of the riskiest small business ventures. "The only way I could fantasize about (a restaurant) is if I won the lottery," he said. "And now that I've opened this place, even if I won the lottery, I still wouldn't open a restaurant."

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