ABOUT 9.15 last Friday night in the kitchen of Britain's most expensive restaurant, tempers were beginning to singe. It was hot in there and the 18 chefs and 24 waiters were getting on each other's surfaces. A waiter drew the attention of the senior chef to a portion of new potatoes, intricately sculpted and laid delicately on a plate. To the untrained eye, it looked like a work of art, too perfect to eat. But Gary, the chef, was not happy. He examined it, shook his head, turned and shouted across the kitchen.

'Lee, what did I say about not wanting bleeding black bits in the bleeding potatoes?'

'You said you didn't want bleeding black bits in the bleeding potatoes, chef,' replied Lee, the potato sculptor.

'Well what the bleeding hell are these?' Gary yelled, hurling the plateful of black-spotted spuds at Lee's starched white hat. Though Lee took evasive action, they hit him full tilt. But he said nothing and set to work with his knife, carefully sculpting another portion, this time without black bits. Such was his dispatch he did not appear to notice the piece of potato that was glued, comically, to the nape of his neck.

The set dinner at the Manoir au Quat' Saisons, in the village of Great Milton near Oxford, costs pounds 65 a head without wine. As diners sit in the Manoir's elegant, peaceful, ochre-tinted rooms being served ancient clarets by waiters who cradle the bottles as if they were new-born infants, they can have little idea of the turmoil going on a few metres away, behind a couple of sound-proofed doors. And they will have even less notion that the 'gateau de topinambours au pointes d'asperges' they are about to tuck into has been prepared not by some French acolyte of Escoffier, but by a bunch of hard, working-class boys from Liverpool, Sheffield and Leeds. Boys like Lee, 19, Steve, 25, or Freddie, 18, the one black member of staff, who was pleased that Lenny Henry's television comedy 'Chef]' had made black cooks chic.

'Fifteen years ago, if you had given me an English chef, I'd 'ave 'anded him straight back,' said Raymond Blanc, the Manoir's Michelin-starred proprietor. 'In the Seventies, to be an English chef you needed a lobotomy of the front. Now some of the best chefs in the world are English. And I have 18 of them. Bright, ambitious boys. My boys.'

Monsieur Blanc has 'RB' embroidered on the chest of his crisp, white apron, much as football managers carry their initials on their track suits. But it is not with Alex Ferguson and Manchester United that Raymond Blanc compares the Manoir team. He models his outfit more on Norman Schwarzkopf and the Desert Stormers.

'When you go to war,' he said. 'You want your officers to have experience. But you want your foot-soldiers to be young men, to 'ave their 'earts filled from zat beautiful reservoir called enthusiasm.'

The atmosphere in his kitchen is very like the army: tough men working in a space where there is barely enough room to swing a courgette never mind sculpt one, and kept in order by firm discipline.

'I will not 'ave discourtesy in my kitchen, particularly to the waiters,' explained M Blanc. 'And I try to keep bad language down. I swear, of course.'

There is a hierarchy, sergeant major figures, officers and junior ranks who have the same deferential attitude to strangers that squaddies have. It is no coincidence that the French collective noun for kitchen staff is 'brigade'.

Last Friday, as with every evening before battle commences, M Blanc conducted a tour of his kitchen, inspecting his troops, offering tit-bits of advice, showing concern.

'Goodness, how did you do that?' he inquired of a washer-up who was sporting a somewhat damp bandage on his thumb.

'Caught it on a serrated wossname, Monsieur Blanc.'

In the section where the fish dishes were prepared, Steve was putting the finishing touches to a starter. Blanc examined it.

'Steve, Steve,' he said, pointing to a postage-stamp-sized shard of crab decorating the top of the exquisitely presented food. 'I said I wanted zis bit square. Zis is oblong. It looks 'orri-bull. All out of proportion.'

'Sorry, chef. Yes, chef,' said Steve. 'Sorry, chef.'

'Whatever Monsieur Blanc says is right,' Lee was to explain later. 'Basically, all you have to remember is if he's happy, then you're happy.'

As the evening simmered it began to make sense why the Manoir is so expensive. Each plate is attended to by at least five chefs. Lee dealt only with vegetables, cooked in tiny cast-iron pans fresh for each order, placed in little piles on the plate with finger-tip precision. Talk about labour intensive.

As on a battlefield, it appears everything is done on the hoof, but there is intense planning beforehand. Waiters bring the orders into the kitchen ('one bouillabaisse, one tarte') which are then shouted to the kitchen as a whole by someone in an appalling French accent: 'One boobase, one taught.' With a verbal system mistakes are, inevitably, made. And when they are, everyone blames everyone else, and the chef or waiter at the bottom of the pile gets the bollocking.

'The thing about waiters,' Steve explained, 'is that half of them don't speak English and you bloody scream at them and they don't know what you're talking about and bounce around like bloody Thunderbird puppets and you want to kick their bloody heads in. Blanc wants to get a nice family atmosphere in here, but chefs and waiters, they'll always hate each other.'

At first, seeing the young chefs like Steve in their short-sleeved aprons, you think, God they're all junkies. Pale faces, bags below the eyes, their inner arms kebabed by scabs and scars. But no, the facial tone comes from the hours they spend working at a level only the toughest can maintain. The arm damage is caused by continuous acquaintance with spitting fat, boiling-hot ovens and plates at combustible temperatures.

'You work 100 hours, non-stop for a week, no time for meals, flat out,' said Steve. 'Oh and the pay's horrendous.'

And, like junior doctors, they make mistakes because of fatigue.

' 'Course,' said one young chef, anxious not to be named. 'I cooked up the fish terrine and poached it just a bit too long, got bubbles in it. Had to throw the whole batch away. Don't tell Monsieur Blanc for Christ's sake.'

At about 10.30, the orders from the dining room finished, there still was work to be done: hosing down surfaces, preparing lasagne for the staff's lunch the next day ('cock that up, and they don't half take the piss') and, in one corner, making an egg sandwich on white bread for a guest in one of the Manoir's 19 bedrooms.

'It's for room service,' the chef preparing it said, rolling his eyes heavenwards. 'They come to the Manoir and order an egg sandwich on white bread.'

Still, he spent an age on the thing, carefully slicing off the crusts and presenting it on a boastful flourish of salad.

The young chefs may work like dogs, but there's no dispatching of whingeing memos saying that they can't take the strain anymore, that they're feeling dead and their hands are numb. If a do-gooder came in and tried to ease this bunch's lot, they would be treated like a pansy. Besides, if you can't stand the heat, you can always seek employment in someone else's kitchen.

'No point turning up in the morning, if that's your attitude,' Gary shouted at a hapless subordinate who complained, at the end of the night, about being given yet more work. 'Might as well stay at home. This is the fucking Manoir, you know.'

And, even though they started work at 8am and knocked off at 11.30pm, such is the intensity, such is the adrenalin rush, that Lee, Steve, Freddie and the others can't go back to their digs in the surrounding villages and sleep at the end of their shift. After spending 10 minutes cleaning teeth and gelling hair, they piled into their battered saloons, which were to be found in a spot discreetly round the corner from the Mercedes-lined customer car park, and bounced off to an Oxford nightclub.

'Got yer dancing shoes on, or what?' they said to each other.

'Yer out five nights a week till two or three, back in the kitchen next morning at eight,' explained Steve. 'For the first hour yer legs don't work, but yer get used to it. On yer day off you just die, sleep for 18 hours.'

In the club, the boys had swapped their white aprons for more appropriate attire: Freddie was wearing a boxy, black matador's jacket, a blonde on each arm and a large smile. But though the uniform had gone, the talk was all food and cooking and, particularly, Raymond Blanc.

'All that stuff on Lenny Henry's show is very true, you know, the bollockings and that,' said Steve. 'Blanc's just like that. He'll piss you around, he'll make you cry, he'll cremate you over a dish. But the thing about him is, it's because he wants you to develop. And it works. Burton-Race, Marco, Patrick Woodside, Richard Neat, all the best English chefs worked under him. If he just ignores you then you have to worry. Then he doesn't think you've got it.'

'Yeah,' agreed Freddie. 'You were right in the shite tonight, you were, Lee.'

Sipping on his bottle of Sol, Lee seemed to take it philosophically.

'Jeez, it were one of them nights,' he said. 'But you've gotta take it, haven't yer? You know. You've got a lot to learn.'

(Photographs omitted)

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