From a pig's head to paradise on a plate

Eye witness   The chef British restaurants are now among the best in the world, says the influential Zagat guide. Cole Moreton feels the heat in one of our finest kitchens
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The Independent Online

The chef holds up a pig's head and looks into its lifeless eyes. "This baby's going in a terrine." A fleck of red flesh drops onto the collar of his whites.

"You a vegetarian?" asks Gary Jones, head chef at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons. His colleague lights a blowtorch to singe the hairs on the waxy yellow-pink skin of the pig, before scraping them off with a razor blade.

"No," I answer. "Not yet."

Yesterday the six-month-old animal was suckling its mother on a farm a few miles from here; now it is being butchered for lunch by Lennox "The Colossus" Hasty, a 22-year-old chef de partis with huge hands.

It is only 10 in the morning but the kitchens at Le Manoir are busy. This is the hidden life of haute cuisine that customers should neither know nor care about as they relax in the tranquillity of the dining room, ordering meals that will cost a small fortune.

Gary was here early this morning and will stay late as he seeks to cajole, intimidate and inspire a team of 42 young men and women into creating food worthy of the restaurant's reputation.

London is now a more interesting place to eat out than Paris, says the latest edition of the influential Zagat guide, which describes the city as one of the "top two, three or four" places in the world to dine. You may wonder what this has to do with Le Manoir, some five miles from Oxford, and way outside the M25. But the American publishers of Zagat think London embraces the whole of southern England (the guide lists restaurants in Berkshire and Devon as among the best in the capital). It ranks the "Chef Patron" of Le Manoir, Raymond Blanc, alongside the famously fiery Gordon Ramsay, as one of the finest two chefs around, and the restaurant as a "paradise for all the senses". Zagat also describes the bill as "breathtaking".

Very few of those working in the kitchen could afford to eat at Le Manoir very often, even if they chose the menu du jour at £45 a head. The average chef de partis works up to 14 hours a day and gets paid £16,000 a year.

"After working here they'll be able to cook anywhere on the planet," says Gary Jones, the head chef who believes his boss to be a "culinary god".

If that's true then Gary is his representative on earth. The 36-year-old northerner has fierce eyes and a no-nonsense manner far removed from Blanc's gallic charm; but Gary also has a Michelin star of his own. M Blanc visits the kitchen most days when he is not away writing books or appearing on television, but it is Gary who runs the team, and who must pass every single meal before it is allowed to leave the kitchen.

"Look at them working, they're like bees," he says of his team. "Everyone knows exactly what they have to do." The chef moves through each section, tasting a pea shoot here, a slice of meat there. The leg of our suckling pig hangs on a spit roast, turning in the heat. The purple beans that will be served with it have just been picked from Le Manoir's organic vegetable garden. They will be served in portions of 20 grams, no more and no less. .

"Cut the bones up smaller," says Gary to a young man with a punkish bottle-blond haircut who is browning them to make a jus to go with the pigeon salad. He answers like a squaddie, as they all do: "Yes Chef."

When customers start to arrive the windows are closed and the air conditioning goes off. The temperature of the food is all that counts.

Now nobody speaks unless they have to. "You can feel something in the air," says Gary. "Like a freight train coming to hit you."

When the first order comes – pigeon salad and a terrine for table 27 – the details are written on a white board then called out. The team shouts "Aye!" Starters must be "in the pass" – laid out ready for the waiters – eight minutes after the appetisers are served. Timing is everything. Today's salmon main dish, for example, must be cooked at 48 degrees for 15-18 minutes then served.

"If it's cooked perfectly it won't wait," says Gary. "If a lady decides to nip to the loo when the fish is in the pass we have to give up on it completely and cook her another one."

Gary inspects and retouches every plate as it comes. He arranges salad, drizzles sauce, and sends things back. "Can you see the frost on this plate?" I can't, but it's not good enough. The storage cupboard is a degree too cold.

Then comes trouble: a perplexed waiter returns to the kitchen with a full tray. James, a young chef who is taking the orders, has mixed them up. There is no shouting. Gary moves in close and speaks quietly. Eyes are averted. The rest of the kitchen cannot hear, but nobody envies James.

"Are you going to do the service or am I?"

"I am, Chef."

"Well fucking pay attention, James."

Gary is a tough man but he does not stomp about as Gordon Ramsay is famous for doing. "There's none of that in here," he says later. "The lad's crucifying himself anyway. We'll have a chat later."

Out in the calm of the restaurant people actually fall silent in the presence of their food. The crackling on the pork reminds me why I am not a vegetarian.

One diner arrived by helicopter but most are dressed in their best clothes for the meal of a lifetime. They linger as the evening cools, and photograph each other on the croquet lawn. Ladies in hats walk off the effects of a wedding banquet.

Gary is spending an hour with his wife and young daughters. Lennox is too busy to take a proper break, but I coax him outside for a chat. We stand by a silver convertible worth three times his wage.

His arms are stained with dried blood and his eyes are tired. Evening service is about to begin and it will be another five hours until he gets back to the room he rents from a family in a village nearby.

"You don't notice how tired you are until you sit down," he says. "So I don't sit down."

Still, Lennox knows why he is at Le Manoir: to watch, learn, and one day get a Michelin star of his own. "Must go," he says. "I've got ducks to de-bone."