Sue Arnold: My duck soup heaven in the kitchen from hell

As well as barefoot chefs, it was home to beetles, rats cats, birds and an old man squatting at the back door
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The Independent Online

Everyone knows the story of the chef who sneezed over a pizza order and told the waiter to call it extra mozzarella. If you've ever been inside the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant, by which I mean a restaurant in China, scare stories like the latest leaked report about a health inspection that found fault with the hygienic practices in both Gordon Ramsay's and Raymond Blanc's illustrious establishments will leave you unimpressed. I have.

Everyone knows the story of the chef who sneezed over a pizza order and told the waiter to call it extra mozzarella. If you've ever been inside the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant, by which I mean a restaurant in China, scare stories like the latest leaked report about a health inspection that found fault with the hygienic practices in both Gordon Ramsay's and Raymond Blanc's illustrious establishments will leave you unimpressed. I have.

I was once invited into the kitchen of a large restaurant in Shanghai which appeared to have an open sewer running through the middle of the floor. It may have been a broken drain, I suppose, but whatever it was, it was incredibly smelly. You wouldn't have wanted to look too closely at some of the stuff floating about in it. Then again, advised my companion philosophically, you wouldn't want to look too closely at some of the stuff floating around in the soup in some of those restaurants either.

The previous day, I'd asked for duck soup and was surprised, not to say a little scared, at the contents I dug up with my spoon. Do ducks have ears and long thin tails? Just as I was beginning to wonder if I'd got the wrong order I hit something hard at the bottom. It was a duck's bill, so big and yellow it might have been plastic, but it wasn't. It was the genuine article.

The reason we had been offered the tour was that my companion had carelessly remarked to the waiter taking our order that he wished he knew how to cook Peking duck because he liked it so much. Come come, said the waiter, and took us backstage. There were half a dozen chefs on duck duty, all bare-chested and barefoot. They didn't wear aprons - they wiped their hands, their knives, their ladles and the backs of their hands after they'd wiped their noses on their trousers.

This last is not standard practice in China where wiping, and especially blowing, your nose on a handkerchief which you then replace in your pocket is considered not merely unhygienic but barbaric. As long as you're a good shot, hawking and spitting is socially acceptable in the land of Ming and Mandarins and the same goes for blowing your nose.

Ever since Lin Li, the receptionist at our hotel, a delicate beauty in a blue, silk cheongsam straight off a willow-pattern plate, turned her glossy head from the form she was completing and shot a perfectly aimed stream of spittle into a decorative plant pot a good eight feet from the reception desk, I had become used to this method of eliminating bodily waste.

If the duck chefs in that Shanghai kitchen had been nearer to the drain, they would have hawked, spat and blown their noses into it like everyone else, but they were in the Peking duck preparation area at the far end so they couldn't. Besides, they were far too busy: Peking duck was the restaurant's signature dish. The Manoir aux Quat' Saisons was penalised for not having a separate basin in the kitchen apart from the half dozen industrial sinks for the staff to wash their hands. There wasn't a sink of any kind in the Chinese kitchen, nor, as far as I could see, running water. There was a trough that emptied into the drain and a line of buckets next to it which the chefs poured over whatever needed to be washed. I thought they might wash the ducks which were lying in a heap on the floor, still with their feathers on, but they didn't. Here's how the chain worked.

The de-feathering chef passed the birds to the degutting chef who piled the entrails into a bucket. When it overflowed on to the floor, a menial carried it away and chucked it into the drain. The ducks were then thrown into a vat of boiling water for a couple of minutes, fished out, stuck on to long, bamboo poles, immersed in another huge vat of runny honey, given a thorough once-over with a blowtorch, then placed in rows on a tray and whacked, as Jamie Oliver would say, into a red hot oven.

As well as barefoot chefs and dead ducks, the kitchen was home to beetles, cockroaches, rats, cats and small birds flying in and out through the holes in the roof. There were cigarette butts and vegetable parings on the floor and people delivering goods had to negotiate past an old man squatting at the back door sharpening knives on the stone step. We returned to our table. Minutes later our duck arrived. It was the crispiest, juiciest, tastiest Peking duck I have ever eaten. Old Chinese proverb: 10 dinners in Chinese restaurant safer than overnight stay in English hospital.

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