"I'm starving," a student in Zero George's weekly Saturday morning cooking class exclaimed as she reluctantly handed off a cauliflower floret for the next student to examine.

Executive chef Randy Williams' two-hour instructional sessions at the boutique hotel, which this month were honored by Food & Wine magazine as one of the nation's top three new cooking courses, are far from frivolous eating-and-drinking affairs: He doesn't uncork a bottle of wine until the second hour starts.

Instead, the classes are designed to emphasize contemporary techniques and encourage students to think like chefs.

On a recent Saturday at the downtown Charleston location, Williams, wearing a chef's jacket and cowboy boots, demonstrated how to prepare a butternut squash puree, roasted pork loin and olive oil cake. The cake recipe he distributed was written out in metric measurements, because "that's how more people like to do it now." He also stressed asymmetrical plating and advised that "people are getting away from blanching vegetables ahead of time."

Williams threw out words like "supremes" and "pellicule," but never without immediately defining them: His overarching goal was for students to grasp pureeing and pan roasting, rather than walk away knowing how to make a specific dinner.

All the midday class was missing was pre-meal snacks: "That smells good," a student said enthusiastically when a pot came off the stove. "That smells so good," another agreed. Williams, puzzled, responded, "It's just sugar and water. That's all it is."

Still, the eight-person program is an intimate alternative to the arena-style classes offered elsewhere. The cozy zinc-topped sewing table that functions as Williams' teaching space is positioned in the boutique hotel's lobby. "One of the fun things is you answer a lot of questions about restaurants," he says of being situated in a tourist hub.

(He tends to recommend Two Boroughs Larder and Xiao Bao Biscuit.)

Zero George offers cooking classes at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and at 11 a.m. Saturdays. The fee is $125; call 817-7900 for reservations or more information.