Heat of the moment

Photographer Mischa Haller and writer Sybil Kapoor spent 24 hours recording life in the steamy kitchens of the St Martins Lane hotel
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Money is pouring into London again, bringing with it the latest set of beautiful people, who demand ever more spectacular locations to play in. Ian Schrager, the American entrepreneur who runs a chain of Philippe Starck-designed hotels in America, is, it seems, the man to give it to them. He has begun with St Martins Lane, a hotel on - yes, you've guessed it - St Martin's Lane, but soon he will open a second hotel, Sanderson, which his publicity fulsomely describes as a "lifestyle-orientated urban spa" in Soho.

There is no doubt that St Martins Lane is a design statement, perfect for poseurs. It has a vast lobby, and staff clad in charcoal grey straight from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Models, pop stars, wannabes and Schrager groupies all visit. A few are permitted into the Cubist, exclusive, Light Bar (hotel guests and by invitation only), the rest amuse themselves in the hotel's three restaurants: Asia de Cuba (Asian Cuban fusion food) Saint M (brasserie) and the Seabar (Japanese fish bar). It is a playground that never sleeps. You can check in and enjoy a late meal, linger in the bar until 3am or call room service 24 hours a day.

To service this roundabout of pleasure, Schrager has employed 27-year- old Richard Phillips (previously head chef at Marco Pierre White's Criterion) as his executive chef. He had the task of designing two kitchens that can run around the clock. Trusted men had to be found for the key posts. As Lawrence Keogh, one of Phillips' sous chefs, says, "This kitchen is the culinary equivalent of taking the best of Manchester United and the best of Arsenal, and making a new Premier League side." The chefs have come from the two main culinary stables in London - Terence Conran's and Marco Pierre White's. In total there are around 50, spanning almost every nationality.

Once a chef arrives for work, he or she is enveloped in the claustrophobic life of the kitchen. With no sense of the outside world, it becomes a dominating force. There is a shared sense of pride about the hotel, excitement in what they are trying to achieve and a quiet respect for one another. Its life ebbs and flows with the designer guests outside, 24 hours a day.

St Martins Lane, 45 St Martin's Lane, London WC2N 4HX (0171-300 5500)

8.30am to 10am

The kitchens kick into life as the 8am shift arrives. Andrew Evans (left) works as the hotel's goods receiver in the delivery bay. He has to check everything from laundry to Champagne. "I make sure that all the food matches the specifications of each restaurant," he explains, while weighing a salmon. "It's a bit under," he mutters to the unperturbed driver. Once agreement has been reached, he signs for the fish, before a porter whisks it away to one of the large walk-in fridges. Meanwhile, Joel Brewer (centre), an Australian chef de partie in the Asia de Cuba kitchen, has dived under an oven to turn an electric rice cooker off at the mains before the fire alarms go off. The flex has fallen too close to the ovens and burst into flames. Djoni (right), one of several kitchen porters from the Congo, sips a coffee, before continuing with the never-ending washing up. He studies English, when not working shifts in the kitchen.

10am to 12.30pm

Everyone works quietly and methodically towards the lunch-time service. Peter Denham (below), head chef of Asia de Cuba, has sneaked up to the delivery bay office to place a second order for some items he forgot late last night. His staff are intent on preparing the food for their stations. Joel Brewer (below left) blitzes some roasted tomato sauce for his Cuban black bean "soup" dumplings. Outside, in the Asia de Cuba restaurant (below), the waiters have been assembled for an educational "pre-meal tasting" of whole, wok-fried crispy fish. Peter Denham has explained how the dish is made, before the restaurant manager insists that the sleepier members describe the dish to the team. Only then are they all allowed to dig in. Richard Phillips (right, in apron), St Martins Lane executive chef, spot checks some of Asia de Cuba's sauces while discussing the day's problems with Peter Denham before service begins.

12.30pm to 1.45pm

By 1pm both kitchens resonate with the two head chefs calling out their lunch orders - each is answered by a chorus of "Yo!" as each chef acknowledges he has heard his part of the order. The chefs for Saint M work in a narrow corridor, bordered on one side by their cookers and on the other by the hot lamps of the servery. Vegetables, fish and meat are pulled out from small fridges that sit under the servery. The cold larder chef (main picture, nearest to camera) works closely with his hot counterpart (far left, with pot), assembling starters under the watchful eye of their head chef Ian Sutton (main picture, centre). Nothing leaves without his say so. Kitchen porters deftly remove and restock the pans as the pace quickens. No one has had a break or eaten since they arrived that morning. Andrew Evans (above) has left his assistant in charge of deliveries while he nips upstairs to buy a bought-in sandwich from the drab staff room.

1.45pm to 2pm

The heat intensifies throughout the service. Water is essential. By 2pm the rush has subsided and the kitchen begins to feel more relaxed. Freddie Delim Junior (left, drinking water) has already served breakfast, before starting on lunch. Now he will be constantly interrupted from prepping the mis-en-place for his station by requests from the bar at Saint M and room service. His opposite number on the cold larder is busy drying washed salad leaves in a giant salad spinner (top left), neatly set over a kitchen drain. By 4pm the hotel's repair men (above) have appeared to weld some sauceboat hooks onto the servery. They start work while the kitchen is still quiet.

2pm to 5.45pm

Anyone on a split shift can leave at 3pm, provided their station is ready for the evening. They must be back by 5pm. Peter Denham (right) snatches 40 winks in the quiet of his office. Upstairs, in Asia de Cuba, it's Paul Thomas's turn to make enough staff dinner for 80 people (top right). At 4.30pm his spicy chicken wings, roasted potatoes and salad disappear on to the plates of the queuing hungry waiters (above). Someone shouts, "Watch your backs, watch your stomachs," as he waits in line. The chefs only eat after the waiters have had their fill. The air begins to buzz with anticipation of a busy evening service. Everyone chats and jokes together. A double portion of Vietnamese banana bread pudding with ginger and a lime syrup is caramelised for a hungry photographer.

6pm to 7.45pm

Beyond the kitchen doors the hotel begins to fill with a constant stream of elegantly dressed guests. A private drinks party for 150 people is being held in the Light Bar and Ian Sutton (left) is placing the finishing touches on the first of many silver canape trays. Croustades of Scottish lobster with sevruga caviare are set in neat rows with maki sushi rolls (from the Seabar) and duck rillettes with prunes on a garlic crouton. Asia de Cuba has a list of the table bookings and is expecting a busy night feeding around 300. But Phil Thompson (right) is still feeling relaxed as he sautees the first orders of the evening.

8pm to 9.30pm

Three of the kitchen's five female chefs work in pastry. Kerstin Procopius (above, pictured right) is on a split pastry shift and will work until the last dessert is served in Asia de Cuba. Some nights she will not leave until 2am. Phong Sahn takes a quick snap of her with Peter Denham's camera. It is all part of the romance of working in an intense, hard-working team. Life outside the kitchen seems far away. By 8.30pm the orders are pouring in and Peter Denham's sous chef (right) has been set the task of calling out the orders. He has to learn to orchestrate them so that the kitchen runs smoothly.

9.30pm to 11.45pm

The next few hours pass quickly as the orders fly in. Saint M's head chef, Ian Sutton (above, pictured centre), acts as a trouble shooter for any problems that arise in his kitchen. These can include anything from getting the bins emptied to the arrival of a VIP guest in the restaurant. Room service operates around the clock from a separate pantry. The orders automatically come through to the kitchen. Once ready, room service (far right) collect them, arrange their trays and send them upstairs. Tension mounts as everyone is besieged with work. Dirty plates fly into the steaming wash-up area (right) from both restaurants.

Midnight to 1am

As service draws to an end, the chefs clean down their sections and stack everything but their own knives in the pot wash (far left). Soon the porters are obscured from sight as they manually scrub every burnt tray and sticky pan. It is the worst part of their day. Once the head chef gives the OK, the chefs leave their stations and start to relax (above). Head chefs may have to inspect fridges and fill in the next day's order sheets, but jollity is allowed. Riotous shouts erupt from behind the changing room lockers (left). Dirty whites are stuffed into bags for washing at home, splattered towels and aprons are left in the hotel's laundry bin. Soon a blast of fresh night air will remind them of that other life, outside.

1.30am to 7am

Calm descends on the kitchen as it empties of staff . The cocktail waitresses from the Light Bar slip in to collect their supper (above right). They won't finish work until 4am but a pretty smile may tempt a chef to make them something special. By 2am all the night staff have arrived. This is the only time that the porters can clean the kitchen properly (above). Everything from extractor hoods to beneath the ovens has to be scrubbed. Eddie Solivn (right) works six nights a week, baking the hotel's bread and pastries. Time is marked by the ebb and flow of arriving and departing staff. The breakfast chef arrives at 5.30am. Sausages must be fried, eggs scrambled (far right), or poached and chilled, and all before 6.30am and the first breakfast orders. In an hour or two the rest of the chefs will return, still drowsy from sleep, for another day in their kitchen. n

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