THE KITCHEN OF THE Santa Barbara condominium is filled with the scent of warming cheeses, fresh bread and hand-ground lamb. Paul Child, a retired diplomat, opens a bottle of California Chardonnay. A breeze blows in from the Pacific.

His wife is laughing hard, recalling the worst meal she's ever had. The best--the best would be too hard to decide.

"I can remember a great many meals," Julia Child says. "The worst--it was in England. We stopped at a beautiful Tudor inn on a river bank. In the dining room, there was this resplendent maitre d'hotel with his costume. We sat down overlooking the rose garden. And we had a very old-fashioned English meal.

"We started with a soup that had a lovely name, like a consomme double or I don't know what--a watery broth. And then Paul had the joint, and I had the boiled fowl. Paul's was well-cooked lamb. The fowl was a great big leg of chicken, and they had the typical white sauce on top of it. And sticking out through the white sauce were the hairs . . . mmm, yes. I'll always remember it. Over-boiled vegetables then, you know. Some horrible kind of a pudding. But we actually en joyed it, because it was so awful!"

It is unusual for Child to be so tolerant of bad food. Back in 1952, few women spent time in the kitchen. Convenience was king, freezers were fashionable, and women prided themselves on the speed with which they zipped their dinners to the table. Cookbooks with titles like "The 10-Minute Meal and How to Make It" were all the rage. By '62, things had not changed all that much. Things we take for granted--cheese shops, imported knives, freshly roasted coffee--hardly existed. Nobody had ever heard of pasta, and when we ate spaghetti it was with meatballs. Women were still celebrating their liberation from the kitchen, and those who really liked to eat made annual pilgrimages to Europe to do so. The words "American" and "food" were never used in the same sentence by the culinarily conscious. By '72, all that was over. America was in the throes of a food revolution. Housewives began investing in copper pans and almost everybody in America knew how to pronounce boeuf bourguignon. What had happened? Julia Child. She had come into the kitchen and taken America by storm.

Beyond this, Child made cooking seem like fun. She brightly patched up her mistakes and reminded her audiences that if they didn't tell, nobody would know. She stirred and sliced with such energy that she made people want to get into an apron and do it with her. But most of all, she made Americans feel that food was one of the best things about being alive.

Now, at 75, she hopes to see a grand dream rise on several acres of land at the University of California, Santa Barbara. If Julia Child has her way, the site will become the permanent home for the American Institute of Wine & Food, founded to elevate the study of what we eat and why we eat it to the level of literature.

On the other hand, if faculty members and students at the university get their way, the land and its disused Spanish-tiled building--currently leased from UCSB for a nominal sum--will be put to more traditional use on the space-starved campus. Many professors shudder at the thought of a wine-and-cheese image just as their young university is gaining acceptance in academia. Moreover, what Child sees as a professorial witch hunt against her friend and AIWF proponent, former UCSB Chancellor Robert Huttenback, is undermining her vision of a permanent institute on the Santa Barbara campus.

Most recently, this summer an East Coast-West Coast schism in the leadership of the organization--said to have been developing for some time--is causing further problems for the AIWF.

THE NOTION of an organization devoted to the study of American wine and food developed more than a decade ago. Child recalls meeting with chefs James Beard and Jeremiah Tower (who created San Francisco's Stars and Berkeley's Santa Fe Bar & Grill) to discuss the idea in the mid-'70s. But, she says, "absolutely nothing happened."

In 1981, however, after discussing the use of the Santa Barbara campus with then-Chancellor Huttenback and Chalone Inc. owner Richard Graff, the Childs hosted a party at their new California home. Tower, Chez Panisse's Alice Waters, wine baron Robert Mondavi and other pioneers of the new American cuisine finally set the institute in motion, organizing the AIWF as a nonprofit corporation later that year.

According to its charter, the American Institute of Wine & Food would "win academic recognition for gastronomy--a serious and worthwhile endeavor that for centuries has engaged mankind's energy, ingenuity and artistry. To do this, the institute will bring research and scholarship to food and wine in a manner never before accomplished and thereby bring greater recognition to those who make them with distinction and dedication." Richard Graff was the institute's first president. And from its temporary headquarters in San Francisco, the AIWF has produced several publications and holds an annual National Conference on Gastronomy.

But the group still seeks a permanent home. Child has reservations about San Francisco as a location, saying that there's too much "putting on the dog" there. "I'd like to see something in Southern California," she says. The Santa Barbara location always seemed ideal. And Huttenback--a passionate gourmet and an AIWF backer since that first dinner party--was confident that he could talk his faculty into welcoming the institute.

Yet despite the serious intentions and impeccable credentials of the great cooks and food folk supporting the institute, the idea was received coolly by the academic community. "In all candor," says UCSB Vice Chancellor Robert Michaelsen, who was active on a committee evaluating the proposed institute, "there has not been evidence of much enthusiasm on campus" for the AIWF. In March, 1982, Michaelsen recalls, the faculty legislature of the academic senate passed a resolution "telling (Huttenback) he was more or less on his own with this project. . . . The majority expressed reservations, saying that, in a time of scarce resources, it's best to use those resources for teaching and research."

"We made our views known," one professor commented, "but they obviously don't count very much." Faculty senate votes are merely advisory, that professor pointed out, and UC campuses are not democracies. Another faculty member termed the institute "a seeming indulgence." Both students and faculty raised concerns about the morality of an institute dedicated, as they saw it, to pricey eating and drinking.

Huttenback refused to comment on the campus opposition to his project other than to tell the student newspaper, the Daily Nexus: "If not having the institute would have any effect on world hunger, I'd be happy not to establish it."

But, quietly, Huttenback and the university reached a decision that there would be "no official connection" between UCSB and the AIWF, even if the lease of land was arranged. And the professors also knew it was unlikely that scholars would rush to use research facilities at an institute disapproved of by the majority of the faculty.

In that environment, Huttenback's forced resignation as chancellor in July, 1986, was a decided blow. A scandal had erupted over allegations that he had misused university funds to remodel his home.

Ironically, a $104,000 kitchen renovation was a focus of the investigation. (Although he is still a tenured professor in the history department, he was arrested last March on suspicion of embezzlement, insurance fraud and tax evasion. Huttenback, for his part, is suing the university for damage to his reputation.)