Still reaching for the stars: When a rising young chef lost an arm, his passion for cooking kept him alive, says

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'I don't want to be known as a one-armed chef,' says Michael Caines, his soft voice still touched by a note of incredulity at the loss of a limb. The right sleeve of his crisp white chef's jacket is empty, neatly folded from his shoulder and pinned to his chest. Since losing his right hand in a car accident eight weeks ago, and the entire right arm in the emergency surgery that followed, he is, want it or not, a one-armed chef.

Moreover, he doesn't want to be known as a black chef. Adopted when he was three months old by a pair of Exeter schoolteachers, he never knew his biological parents and doesn't want to. But all he need do is look in the mirror to see he is half-Jamaican and, at 25, one of only two British blacks to have infiltrated the upper echelons of restaurant cookery.

Special pleading isn't Caines' style. It doesn't wash in his business. As anyone who has been in a top professional kitchen knows, no one cares what colour you are. You're either good or you're in the way.

Michael Caines is so very good that earlier this year Raymond Blanc recommended him for the head chef job at Gidleigh Park hotel in Devon, a Michelin one-star and one of only 28 British restaurants to receive a 4 out of 5 in the Good Food Guide. Blanc's reference? That Caines was one of the most gifted chefs he had seen.

Unsurprisingly, Caines got the job at Gidleigh, his first as head chef. The pressure was enormous. On top of cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner, implicit in the brief was maintaining the Good Food Guide rating and keeping the Michelin star. The inspectors from the GFG visited during his first three weeks, while he was still breaking in a kitchen brigade. The 1995 edition is heavy with demotions, but, as Caines discovered on leaving hospital, he preserved Gidleigh's rating.

The accident happened three months into the new job. He had been driving home from his niece's christening in Wales when he fell asleep at the wheel on the M4 and his car skidded, careened off barriers and flipped over. 'When the car finally stopped,' he said, 'I noticed my hand at my feet. It was a matter- of-fact kind of observation. It was just there.' His first impulse was to crawl from the wreck.

A woman who had witnessed the accident knelt at his side, coaxing him to remain conscious. 'My arm hurts,' he groaned. 'I know. You're injured,' she said. 'No, the arm you're kneeling on,' he said. She asked about his family, then his job. This probably saved his life. As he lost a litre of blood and fought off a potentially fatal coma, Caines realised he was too busy to die.

Caines is a natural athlete. He swims. He plays tennis. Had he not been terribly fit, he would be dead. He stunned the doctors who treated him - first by surviving, then by leaving hospital six days after the accident.

Then the enormity of his injury hit him.

'They dressed me, I was changed, ready to go,' he said. 'Waiting for Dad, I had about 20 minutes and I broke down. I stopped crying when I fell asleep in the car. And when I got home, they had 'Welcome home Michael' and I broke down again. That's when I realised that this is going to be my state for the rest of my life.'

Blanc's co-chef, Clive Fretwell, was at Caines' side within a day of the accident. Blanc visited him when he got home. 'The neighbours loved it,' said Caines, rubbing his pencil- line beard with his left hand and breaking out in an affectionate grin. 'This famous little French guy appearing.

Whatshisname]'

The famous little French guy immediately offered Caines a job back at the Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Oxfordshire, but the job at Gidleigh was still his. For his part, Gidleigh's owner, Paul Henderson, got on the blower, researching the latest line in false arms in America. And Gidleigh kitchen staff rallied round, too, keeping 'Michael's food' on the menu while he was in hospital.

To everyone's astonishment, Caines returned within a fortnight of the accident and is now being fitted with an artificial limb. 'Whatever I get, it is going to be down to my determination to make it work,' he says. This will require retraining his left hand to perform as well as the right one used to. Amazingly, he is nearly there: watching him through a lunch service, he coated a john dory fillet with a herb crust quickly and gracefully.

It all started with a teenage habit of rustling up cakes in the homes of friends, much to the consternation of their mothers. Following two years of catering college, an Exeter chef sent him to the Grosvenor House hotel in London. The chef there commended him to Blanc in Oxfordshire, for whom he had to do a three-day trial without pay. Three years later, Blanc arranged for him to cook at the Michelin three-star Cote D'Or in Burgundy. He cooked there for 15 months before moving to another three-star, Restaurant Jamin, in Paris.

Caines describes each apprenticeship as 'decharacterisation'. 'You are being trained to carry out the chef's will. And, depending on the chef, they will do just about anything to get you to do what they want,' he says. Blanc taught him perfectionism. 'The discipline that I learnt from Blanc got me to France.'

Once in Burgundy, he earned the respect of another great French chef, Bernard Loiseau. 'Loiseau would just shout,' says Caines. 'He was fantastic.

He was the soul, the chef. His character, charisma, ran the kitchen. The hype before the service was like pre-fight energy before a Tyson-Bruno match. He'd shout, we're the best, we're the best]'

A man who is probably not his role model is Joel Robuchon, proprietor of Restaurant Jamin. For a year, Caines worked from 7.30am to 1.30am with a half-hour break in the late afternoon. The pay was pounds 750 a month, half of which went on rent.

'The hours and pay were typical. You get used to that. It was the treatment.

It wasn't a matter of being told: 'You're doing this wrong',' says Caines.

'He's shouting at you, screaming at you, to a point where his face is screwed up and you think, this guy's mad] And he comes round and he pushes you and pulls at you. And it can be exactly the same sauce you made yesterday to exactly the same recipe. If it's not the sauce, it's the soup.

If it's not the soup, it's the bouillon. It would always be something, so you were always on your guard. You were frightened.'

Caines, in contrast, runs his kitchen in a voice so soft the whoosh of the extractor nearly drowns it out. And he says please. Would he shout? 'Yeah]'

he says. 'You get all types in kitchens, your dodos, your plodders, your characters, and, within reason, they need all approaches. But if you spot someone with talent and push it, that gives you something special.'

Michael Caines is an exceptional man, though he does not agree. 'I'm just human. When you believe in something so much that the thought of not being able to do it makes you want to die, and the thought that you might be able to do it makes you want to live, that's human.

'Everybody has something they are passionate about. For me, it's cooking.'

Gidleigh Park, Chagford, Devon (0647 432367). As part of a series celebrating 'The Birth of British Chefs', Michael Caines will cook an eight-course meal at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire (0844 278881), on 9 November. The cost will be pounds 85 per person, including champagne, wines with each course and coffee.

(Photograph omitted)

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