Hungry hearts: A Chef's life is only for those with the stomach for it

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Jamie's naked and Gordon's nasty; Delia's reliable, Heston's a rebel. All of them, though, make the job look like a piece of cake, and perhaps that's part of the problem. Because the food industry is struggling to attract new recruits – especially women and young people – and, according to Michel Roux Jr, too many of those who do want to become chefs are more interested in becoming a big cheese.

Few of them, he says, understand the level of pure, hard graft required to become a kitchen superstar.

The job is not for the faint-hearted. Long hours in the heat, suffering cut fingers and burned forearms, are not for everyone. I did it for one night and smelled of monkfish for a week. Make no mistake: these people are passionate, dedicated, and have a real love and appreciation of food.

"The guys start at 9-10am and work until 11pm," says Jeff Bland, executive chef at the Balmoral Hotel's Michelin-starred Number One restaurant in Edinburgh. "They don't have any breaks. And it's really a cushy number now, because we used to be open for lunch and then they had to be in at 7am."

What's in it for them? "They love it. It's interesting. They do something different every day, they're appreciated and they're working with the best products," he says. "They're actually achieving something tangible on a daily basis. They can look at the end result on a plate and say, 'I made that'."

The feedback from guests is an added bonus, as is the kitchen camaraderie: "These boys – they all rely on each other. This is their second home."

And they're the lucky ones, he says. They're working at the top end of the market with top-quality ingredients and in pleasant surroundings. "If you're down there slogging away, knocking out a load of grub every day, that's really hard. You want to aim for the top," says Bland.

"But if you want to do the job properly," he adds, "you have to start at the bottom. I don't think anyone wants to do the basic jobs – everyone wants to be a star – but unfortunately that's where you need to start if you're going to be successful."

To make it as a chef, he says, you need stamina, but more importantly you must be hungry for it. "It's tough for the young ones when you look at something they've made and say, 'That's not good enough, you're going to have to put it in the bin and start again'. Or it's been a tough day and you want to go home but two people come in a bit late – we had a group recently who were delayed and ended up having their main course at 1:30am. Then you have to get up the next morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. It's hard."

Not everyone has what it takes. "If I have someone who I don't think will make it, I'll tell them straight. Often, they don't believe me, and they'll then go somewhere else," he laughs.

"If you want to be the chef of the Dorchester, you could do it in 20 years' time. If you want to be the chef of a restaurant in Edinburgh, you might be able to do it in three or four years ... but it might not be that good a restaurant."

One wannabe who believes he can stand the heat is 16-year-old Craig Hawthorn, who won STV's Chef's Apprentice, the prize of which was an apprenticeship at Number One. "It was my health and food technology teacher at school who suggested I enter," says Hawthorn, who lives near Glasgow.

"There were 16 of us who got through to the final televised stages and in the first round we had an hour to cook a main course. In the final it was the full three courses for two people in one hour, which was a real challenge."

Becoming a chef is something that has been in the back of his mind for a long time, though he has only started thinking seriously about it more recently. "My first job was pot washing in a local restaurant. I worked long hours and didn't get things like Christmas off, but it was good fun and working with food is what I want to do, so you get used to it; you just knuckle down and enjoy it."

I join the team half-way through their day, mid-preparation for the evening's service. Tonight's a quiet night – just nine tables – so everything is serene; a far cry from Hell's Kitchen.

Venison is being rolled in clingfilm before being stored in the fridge to ensure each slice is exactly the same size and will cook evenly for that night's Borders venison loin with pommes Anna, parsley root, date and armagnac pure.

Super-fresh scallops have arrived and need shucked (that's my job), while the monkfish needs filleted for the monkfish bourguignon (appearing with pommes mousseline and confit celeriac – again, a job for yours truly). A fish stock is simmering on the hob, while around the walls are photographs of every dish on the menu, so each chef knows exactly how it should look when it leaves the kitchen.

Canaps are being prepared – a tiny goats cheese fritter, a savoury doughnut with chorizo crust and a mini corned beef sandwich – when, at around 5:45pm, there's calm and a downing of tools before the first diners arrive.

Half an hour later, the machine steams into action, orders coming in and getting sent out almost seamlessly, with the kitchen and waiting staff working in tandem. The evening goes like clockwork, with no dropped dishes or scalded fingers, much to my disappointment, and by 8:45pm the penultimate main courses are being prepared. "It's been a quiet night," says head chef Craig Sandle. "I should finish by the back of 10pm." Which is good news for the new father, whose wife and baby will be waiting for him at home.

As for Hawthorn, he'll be heading back to school and looming exams, but his two-week stint as a trainee chef has not put him off. On the contrary. "Hopefully in ten years I'll have a Michelin star," he says with a straight face. "I'd hope for three, but I'd settle for one."

Number One is hosting an under-21s dining experience for wannabe trainee chefs in June. To find out more contact the restaurant on 0131-557 6727.

&#149 This article was first published in The Scotsman on Saturday, May 29, 2010