It's 6.15pm. Impassively they sit in front of the television watching Australian soaps. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air, empty Coke cans are strewn around the room, this is relaxation, the calm before the storm.

For these young people are waiters and waitresses and are about to be severely stressed out, have their tempers tested by irrational and demanding customers, and be chivied along by managers who want them to turn over customers quickly.

This is behind the scenes, behind the mozarella and tomatoes at Quaglino's, Sir Terence Conran's gastronomic utopia; a restaurant that resembles a high class canteen, which of an evening has been known to satisfy 900 hungry punters. Mark Murtagh, first head waiter, said: 'This is the sort of restaurant where you can burn out really quickly.'

By 7pm the bar is already busy and the tables are filling up. The 30 waiting staff and runners are ready for the rush. Behind the smart port-holed doors to the kitchen, the senior sous chef, John Torode, talks the kitchen staff and waiters through the new menu; all garlic and olive oil, 'pavlova stays the same'.

By 7.30pm they are already being 'slammed', with customers arriving all at once and orders hitting the kitchen at the same time. The chef blanching the spinach is a miracle of speed: a dish is prepared and preened in under four minutes.

By 9pm, the first wave of early diners are leaving. One lot out and the next lot in.

The kitchen is crazy. John Torode incants the orders, his chefs chorus back, there is a military rhythm to this organised chaos.

By 9.30pm they are going through it all again, the smile ever on the lips, the repeated patter, 'what can I get you? The meringue is wonderful'.

Puddings are quiet, salads are going great guns.

By 11.30pm, eyes are red rimmed but there is no time to be tired because at midnight another 60 people will be sitting down to supper.

'Service,' yells John Torode as the runners slack off momentarily. They leave the kitchen with huge heavy trays loaded down with weighty portions.

One woman the worse for a few bottles of champagne sways over the polished floor to the ladies lavatory, supported by a giggling friend.

'You get all sorts in here. We have had Lenny Henry, Naomi Campbell and Clint Eastwood, he was the ultimate. It's great when we get celebrities, a buzz goes round the whole place,' said Mark Murtagh.

By 1.15am, they are almost finished in the kitchen. Heavy frying pans, pots and steel bowls have been scrubbed and stacked. The flaming cookers and steel plates are switched off but the heat is still there, like standing in front of a furnace.

Paul Catterson, chef de parte is hot and exhausted. As quickly as he prepared the hundreds of meals he whips off his apron, off to catch the train home to Croydon. He will have three hours sleep, starting work again at 7.30am.

By 2.15am there are a handful of people stringing out their coffees and cognacs. The lights are dimmed, it's time to go.

So is it worth it, all this hard work?

'Some nights we go home with just 50p in tips,' said one waitress.

One waiter who wished to remain anonymous said: 'My god, they treat you like shit, especially the Americans. They say 'I want my carpaccio well done' and I say 'well, madam, it's not well done because it's raw'. Why don't they go to McDonald's instead of coming here?'

They all bemoan the British as well. ' At the beginning there were wealthy people dripping with Rolexes and diamonds, now they are just suburban. They dress up and come here for birthday parties.'

John Torode admits that the customer has changed slightly but he reasons, 'this is what we set out to do, to cater to hundreds of people in London every night.'

The average wage in the kitchen is pounds 160 a week, working four days on, three days off. The hours are long and the pace relentless.

The waiters and waitresses get pounds 100 a week basic pay and then the much maligned and hated service charge of 15% levied on every bill, is split between them, the amount depending on level of experience and responsibility.

They hate the service charge because it prevents people tipping. Many also worry that the amount they get in their wage packets has dropped even though the amount of covers is the same.

One nervous waiter said: 'I can't say much but we reckon they are creaming off some of the money from here to fund Conrans restaurant in Soho (due to open later in the year)'. He looks furtive and worried, perhaps expecting a meat cleaver in his back. 'I could lose my job for saying this.'

The managing director, Joel Kissin, of Conran Restaurants, said: 'We don't hold back any service charge. It's a clear case of numbers. We have cut back on the amount of poeple being served at the bar, that's the only way it could have been affected.'


The article on 7 June which featured Quaglino's incorrectly stated the average wage of kitchen staff as being pounds 160. This figure is actually the lowest kitchen wage after tax. The average salary is therefore considerably higher than pounds 160. Quaglino's have also assured us that all service charge is distributed among their staff. We apologise for any embarrassment caused.

(Photographs omitted)