Nick Carter, 20, is in his fourth year as apprentice chef under Michel Bourdin at the Connaught Hotel, London.

I often work about 12 hours a day, starting at 7.45 in the morning and going through to 11pm. There's a break between shifts and I have been known to crash out at the table in the Chef's Library after lunch. Not greatly appreciated if Chef Bourdin is showing a visitor round]

I started my five-year apprenticeship when I was 16 and used to sleep in the hotel. I had come from a small village in Cambridgeshire and felt quite lost in London for the first six months. So it was good to stay with the other apprentices. We've built up great friendships.

In the beginning I went home every weekend - I got quite homesick. Chef Bourdin treats us as if we're still at school for the first year, with a very gentle schedule. It's a sort of gradual weaning process. Our parents have to be involved. They come along to the interview and Chef Bourdin takes on the role of a guardian.

If you live in you have to ask the Chef's permission to have friends to stay the night. Otherwise, visitors have to leave by 11pm. I found this quite difficult. Also I didn't fancy asking him if my girlfriends could stay. I used to sleep at their places instead.

I got my own flat after 18 months. You have to move out in the fifth year anyway. You become a first commis, and because that is a position of respect a distance must be put between you and the othher apprentices. That's difficult if they see you in pyjamas every night.

I like to have my own kitchen, too. I often drift off to sleep thinking up new dishes, wondering if this or that would work, and want the opportunity to experiment. I give dinner parties every week for friends and try out my own ideas. I once made an orange sauce that was too sweet and it ruined my evening.

I haven't got a girlfriend at the moment. It's difficult to keep a relationship going because of the hours I work. I'm quite often shattered and then they phone up and ask me to come over.

My last girlfriend went away all summer travelling. I've always wanted to travel myself, which made it even harder that I had to work right through. When she came back she was all refreshed with life and very energetic and I just thought 'Oh, no]'

I was chatting to a girl at a party on New Year's Eve and told her I was a chef. She said 'Oh well, it's money isn't it?'. I was quite surprised because usually it works very well and they say 'Will you cook me a meal then?'. A lot of people don't understand that cooking is an art, nor why I work such long hours for little pay. They don't understand the ambition. It takes many years to get through the ranks, but I want to go to the top.

Work isn't all there is in life, though. It's important to me to live life to the full outside. I used to sleep on my days off but I don't like to do that now, it wastes my free time. I get upset if I wake up and it's already afternoon. I'm young, and there are lots of things I want to do. Especially have fun.

I like to go out at night and I've never thought 'Oh, I'd better go home now and get my sleep'. There have been times - especially when I was working on pastry and had to be in at 5.45am - when I've gone straight to work from a party. Fatigue quite often does get the better of me, though, and then I try to get eight hours.

Some nights I can't sleep. I lie in bed, but my mind is racing. I think about the future and all the options that will be open to me - have my own restaurant, specialise, work abroad . . . I feel really curious and excited.

A few nights ago I dreamt I called Joel Rebuchon - one of Europe's most respected chefs - and introduced myself to him. I told Chef Bourdin about it. He said: 'This is the high standard you are setting for yourself - that's good'. And yes, I do want to be one of the esoteric few.

(Photograph omitted)