It begins with a dozen shy strangers armed with aprons, utensils, ingredients, and recipes.

It ends hours later, with teacher and students sharing the meal they made, laughing and chatting around the table like old friends.

The hands-on cooking class has become a popular trend that's growing furiously all across the country.

There are about 800 cooking schools nationwide that offer home-chef classes, according to the Louisville, Ky.-based International Association of Culinary Professionals.

"The hands-on classes are selling out immediately," said Cathy Cochran-Lewis, head of the cooking school division of the IACP. "There's a camaraderie in cooking."

At one prestigious school, Peter Kump's Institute of Culinary Education in New York, the number of people signing up for classes has jumped from about 2,000 students in 1995 to 20,000 a year now, according to Vice President Stephen Tave.

The sour economy and the takeout-saturated urban cultures of big cities have helped fuel the popularity of these courses.

"It's partly a yuppie thing people think it's cool," said Nisa Amoils, 30, a Manhattanite who took a class at ICE. "There's this other group that wants to be really creative and entertain more. And there's the perception that it's cheaper to cook than to eat out."

Amoils considers herself among the second group. Her husband was the one who suggested she try the course.

"He was all for it. He has no desire to learn to cook, sadly," she said. "I was so bad around the kitchen. It taught me all these little tricks."

Experts say cable channels like the Food Network and increasingly selective American tastes explain why these classes are the latest fad.

"Chefs are becoming superstars," said Tave. "People want to raise the bar at home."

Teachers like ICE's Richard Ruben, author of The Farmer's Market Cookbook, aim to help the kitchen-phobic.

"I want to crack the crystal pedestal chefs stand on," said Ruben. "Food is an adult sandbox. It's an addiction."

Last week at his $95 five-hour Caribbean workshop, students made a mouth- and eye-watering selection of exotic dishes, including lime-drenched black beans, sautéed plantains in spicy tomato sauce, jerked chicken, snapper fried in tastebud-blasting Habenero chili, coconut flan, and bread pudding in rum sauce. One group even whipped up a batch of ginger beer.

"It was a totally new twist on Caribbean," said student Leesa Ceron, 30, of West New York, N.J. She took the class with a co-worker, Julie Shapiro. "We thought this was a good thing to do together."

"I like to cook, but I generally don't cook Caribbean," added Shapiro, 30, of Manhattan. "It's so different, with unusual ingredients."

Those who have spent time in a culinary classroom say there are reasons other than the love of food for the spike in culinary students like the love of love.

"Wednesday and Thursday nights are the hottest [singles] scenes," Ruben said. "It's so easy to get a clear 50-50 demographic. There's a flirtation, a great banter that goes around, an energy."

It's a more natural, honest setting than the typically booze-infused singles' hangouts. Ruben doesn't allow the group to drink and cook, instead offering wine or beer at the end, while they eat.

Instructor Carmen Cook shows her students how to prepare simple, tasty meals for one. But she had an ulterior motive when she decided 15 years ago to create "Cooking for Singles" at the New School.

"I specifically chose Saturday night because that's date night," she said. "If you don't have a date, you can at least go to a cooking class. Cooking is highly interactive."

She remembers seeing two people meet in her three-session singles' workshop; they reappeared in her "Cooking for Couples" course and told her when they got engaged.

And some take the classes with a significant other. Andrea Beaudry, 26, booked Ruben's Caribbean workshop as a Valentine's Day gift to her boyfriend, 27-year-old Justin Woo.

"It's a good date," Woo said.

Regardless of the reason, young and old are throwing their names on waiting lists and honing their culinary skills.

"There is a genuine joy attached to staying home and cooking," Ruben said. "Food is a basic folk art."