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Celebrity Chefs

According to Gordon Ramsay, "Unless you're at the top, catering sucks". So how bad is life at the bottom of the ladder? We ask five aspiring chefs, while cook-turned-writer Anthony Bourdain offers some words of encouragement.

If you can catch a chef in a reflective moment - over a pint, say - and ask him what are the worst aspects of his job, he'll probably say: "The heat, the pressure, the fast pace, the isolation from society, the hours, the pain, the relentless, never-ending demands of the profession." If you wait a while, maybe two more pints, and ask him again, this time about the best parts of being a chef, more often than not you'll get the same answer.

This is something you might want to keep in mind at the start of your catering career, when you're chained to a sink in a crowded cellar, spending hour after hour scraping veg or washing shellfish: that it doesn't really get any better. In fact, many of us yearn for those carefree days when it was a just matter of putting dirty plates into one end of a machine and watching them emerge clean from the other. I know a number of chefs and sauciers who suffer from what we call 'dishwasher syndrome', meaning that at every spare moment not spent bullying waiters or spooning foamy sauces over pan-seared scallops, they sneak over to the dish station for a few happy moments washing pots. Similarly, I've seen owners of restaurant empires, blissfully sweeping the kitchen floor, briefly enjoying a Zen-like state of calm - of focused, quantifiable toil - far from the pressures of management.

This is not as bizarre as one might think. Unless we've gone, Kurtz-like, over the edge into madness - and started believing, for instance, that we're no longer cooks but forces of nature responsible for elevating the eating habits of a nation - we in the business know who we are: we are the backstairs help. We are in the service industry, and when rich people come into our restaurants we cook for them. We know, or should know, that we are not like our customers, never will be, and don't want to be.We are tougher, meaner, stronger, more reliable and well aware of the fact that we can do something with our hands, our senses, the accumulated wisdom of thousands of meals served, that they can't.

We work harder, under more difficult conditions, with uncertain futures in an often fly-by-night industry, catering to a fickle and capricious clientele in an environment where you can do everything right and still fail.

This environment breeds a clannishness, a tribal subculture, a tunnel-visioned, us-and-them view of the world. In this context, all those hours spent scraping carrots, scrubbing oysters, pulling the bones out of trotters and tourn´┐Żeing turnips really do pay off. You are, in addition to becoming expert at these valuable tasks, asserting your reliability, your toughness, your worth as someone an overworked chef de partie, sous chef or chef might want to take under their wing, invest a little time in, and help to climb out of the cellar and up to the next level. And you're also coming to an understanding of what the hell it is that we do in this business: that we transform the raw, the ugly, the tough and unlovely into the cooked, the beautiful, the tender and the tasty. Any cretin can grill a steak; it takes a cook to transform a humble pig's foot into something that people clamour for.

Transformation is, of course, the story of haute cuisine. It's the story of generations of hungry, servile and increasingly capable French, Italian, Chinese and others, transforming what was at hand, or left over from their cruel masters, into something people want to eat. And just as the shank of beef becomes a thing of wonder when slowly braised in red wine and seasonings, so, too, is the prep cook transformed - into a craftsman, an artisan, a professional responsible to himself, his chef, his owners, his co-workers and his customers.

Of course, a badly rested, overworked three-star chef is not going to take time out of his busy day to train some young commis to clarify stock properly if he has any doubt whether they will still be around, still focused and still motivated in three months' time. Here, the dreary, repetitive functions such as squid cleaning serve a dual purpose; not only are they essential kitchen prep, but they weed out the goofballs, those who thought they wanted to be in The Life, but don't understand or want that amount of commitment.

If some of these budding culinarians are not comfortable with being spoken to harshly, or dismissed with an expletive in a moment of extremis, then they usually lack the character needed for a long, successful run in this greatest of all businesses. Much is made of the emotional volatility or apparent cruelty of some of our better known culinary warriors. To a casual observer, the torrent of profanity likely to come the way of an inadaquately prepared poissonier can seem terrifying and offensive. And there is a line not to be crossed. Bullying for its own sake - for the sheer pleasure of exerting power over other, weaker cooks or employees - is shameful. If I verbally disembowel a waiter during a busy shift for some transgression, real or imagined, I hope and expect that at the shift's end, we will be laughing about it at the bar. If a cook goes home feeling like an idiot for trusting me, for working hard for me and for investing their time and toil in pleasing me, then I have failed in my job.

Good chefs and good kitchens, however hard the work, breed intense loyalty, camaraderie, and relationships that last lifetimes. Most reasonably co-ordinated people with hearts, souls and any kind of emotional connection to food can be taught to cook, but it takes a special breed to love the business. When you pursue excellence for yourself - not for dreams of TV stardom or endorsement deals, not for the customer, not even for your chef, but for yourself - then you are well on your way to becoming the kind of lifetime adrenaline-junkie, professional arse-kicking culinarian who is recognisable in any country or culture.

I can't tell you how many times I've talked about this with chefs and cooks around the world. Whether it's Singapore, Sydney or St Louis, Paris, Barcelona or Duluth, you are not alone.When you finally arrive, when you take your place behind a professional range, start slinging serious food, begin to know what the hell you're doing, you will be joining an international subculture in 'this thing of ours'. You will recognise and be recognised by others of your kind. You will be proud and happy to be part of something old, honourable and difficult to do.

So young wannabe chefs, culinary students, anonymous prep drones, toiling in the harsh backwaters of haute cuisine (or even the corner chippie), take heart: things are looking up. In the entire history of our trade, there has never been a better time to cook professionally. And things will only keep improving. If you're good enough, strong enough - and you keep your eye on the prize - this might actually turn out to be a career with a future. Just learn high standards, and hold onto them.

Because you will be different, a thing apart, and you will cherish your apartness. And when your lifeboat washes up on a deserted beach, with only a whole pig, some jasmine rice, a fishing rod, some wasabi and some soy sauce to play with, you will be the last person to be banished - or, God forbid, eaten. You can cook, Goddamn it!

Adele Holland - Commis Chef
Age: 17
Restaurant: Angela Hartnett's Menu at The Connaught, London, W1
Hours: 7.30am-6pm
Duties: "This morning I was slicing bread for tapas, chopping leeks for soup, making smoked salmon plates, and slicing more bread to go with the terrines."
Worst aspect of job: "The hours are very long and as I live in Romford it can mean getting up at 5.30am."
She says: "I love the people I work with. Angela's a great boss and very understanding. The best thing about my job is working with wonderful ingredients. I had never laid my hands on oysters and lobsters before, and now I get to prepare piles of them."

Angela Hartnett's Menu, The Connaught, Carlos Place, London W1.
Tel 020 7592 1222

Sam Potter - Apprentice Chef
Age: 18
Restaurant: Chewton Glen, Hampshire
Hours: Split shifts are 9am-3pm, then 5pm-11pm; breakfast shifts are 7am-5.30pm; bakery shifts are 3am-1pm
Duties: "What I do changes all the time. I do a day a week in the bakery, starting at 3am, or I'll be on breakfasts, or preparing meals for the health club, on the sauce section, the larder section, looking after the fish..."
Worst aspect of job: "When you're my age, and all your mates are out on a Friday or Saturday night, and you're at work, it's tough. But you've got to live with it."
He says: "The job satisfaction is amazing. When you're standing at the pass sending a dish to a table, you get to think 'I built that from scratch'."

Sam is a student on Bournemouth and Poole College's Specialist Chefs course, sponsored by Waitrose. Study at the college is interspersed with periods of practical training.

Chewton Glen, The Hotel, Health and Country Club, New Milton, Hampshire.
Tel 01425 275341.

Santosh Mistry - Junior Tandoori Chef
Age: 27
Restaurant: Tamarind, London W1
Hours: 10am-3pm; then 6pm-11pm or 3pm-11pm
Duties: His first job of the day is to light the two huge tandoori ovens in the restaurant's small kitchen; after that he checks deliveries, makes dough for the breads, and - under supervision from his superiors on the tandoori station - marinates meat for the next day.
Worst aspect of job: "I'm constantly thrusting my hands into the hot ovens to retrieve food, so my arms are completely hairless. The burns are definitely the worst thing about my job."
He says: "Knowing that in four year's time I'll be a fully trained tandoori chef is wonderful. I've always loved cooking, and want to have my own place someday."

Tamarind, 20 Queen Street, London W1.
Tel 020 7629 3561.

Pak Lim Kao - Order Arranger
Age: 25
Restaurant: The Oriental Restaurant at the Dorchester Hotel, London W1
Hours: 11am-3pm; 7pm-11.30pm; Monday to Friday
Duties: Co-ordinating each order and making sure all the dishes and ingredients are cooked at exactly the right time.
Worst aspect of job: "Slicing lettuces for hour after hour. It's so boring."
He says: "I love just learning to cook, especially dishes like beef with lemon grass and black pepper."

Macau-born Lim will work for two years in this job before his boss, executive chef Kenneth Poon, decides whether he's more suited to the chopping or the wokking side of the kitchen. "It's all a matter of temperament," Kenneth says. "It takes a chef about 15 years to get to the top of a Chinese kitchen. Ten years if you are clever."

The Dorchester Hotel, Park Lane, London W1.
Tel 020 7629 8888.

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