On a counter in the kitchen a cook is wielding a piping bag full of a yellow jelly. 'What's that?' I innocently enquire. 'Apricot jelly. For amuses,' is the brusque reply. 'Apricot jelly starters?' I get the look professionals reserve for idiots. 'To glue the amuses bouches to the plate,' he explains as he puts minute dabs of jelly onto a glass rectangular plate and then deftly sticks down the tiny items. Then he does it again. Two identical plates, miniature works of art. 'Service!' and the trays are whisked away, the 'glue' ensuring that nothing in the presentation shifts out of line on its journey to the lucky customer.

Foliage kitchen is full of such surprises for the uninitiated. Chris Staines the Head Chef at this Michelin starred restaurant in the luxurious surroundings of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightsbridge has allowed me to be in the kitchen during lunch service. I'm in a relatively unused part of the area where I can see the pass and not be in anyone's way. Even so, the used pots and pans and plates fly close by my legs on their way to the metal sinks that are regularly emptied by the green-coated porters. As I dart out to snatch photos I have to time it with the precision of a rabbit crossing the M25. I won't get crushed but I might get a mouthful.

In fact the kitchen is remarkably quiet. Each member of the talented brigade effortlessly moving around in response to his or her own inner clock. Chris only raises his voice to call out the orders and the brigade replies as one 'Oui, chef', or more amusingly 'Wha hey chef!' so that for a moment the kitchen seems to be home to the Newcastle United supporters' club. Occasionally he will ask about an item's readiness. 'One minute chef,' comes back and he's satisfied. In his mind an air traffic controller is camped out, one who knows exactly where everything is and when it should be landing. A late arrival could spell disaster, but it never happens.

The pass is brightly lit, the lights performing the dual function of keeping items warm as well as making sure Chris misses nothing as waiters hold out each tray of completed plates for his final inspection. He mostly nods, occasionally reaching out to correct some imperfection invisible to most people's eyes. Even as he does so he's moving away again to perform some task of his own: frying an item, slicing meat with impossibly sharp knives or constructing some beautiful creation.

On the pass next to him a chef is also assembling dishes, his stock of freshly cooked items constantly replenished by the team behind. Bright green spinach, flipped onto a tray for a final blotting to remove excess water, is swiftly arranged. Basil leaves are peeled from cling film stretched drum tight over a bowl to be placed just so on a waiting plate. A risotto of artichokes is swiftly spooned into a twirled framework of what appears to be pastry, with not a drop dripping over the edge. Each dish suddenly comes together; always it seems at least four items on a plate and all placed so that even the space between them becomes a part of the meal.

Prepping is the secret; the main work done earlier in the day so that all that remains is the cooking of items that can't be prepped beyond a certain stage. As refrigerated drawers slide open you can catch a glimpse of small items in tiny divided sections. All ready to be whipped out, and used when required. From boiling water are lifted tortellinis of lobster, the pasta so impossibly thin you can see the beautiful pink of the lobster shimmering through. They're handled fast because they will cool quickly. Suddenly two crabs the size of dustbin lids and with claws that could encircle my wrist are flipped out from a large cauldron and stacked, steaming, into a tray. 'From Cornwall , this morning,'Chis calls out to me as I dodge the spray of scalding hot water.

They will partly go to make more crab and cucumber cannelloni, now being added briskly to a plate - a mango and basil salad and vanille beurre noisette placed alongside and another fabulous starter leaves the kitchen.

In another corner of the kitchen is the pastry chef. In the main kitchen powerful extractors take away the terrible heat as well the cooking steam. In the pastry section the aromas linger. Like an Enid Blyton fantasy it all smells comfortingly of sweet pastry, cinnamon and sugar. Each dessert is prepared to equal standards of elegance as the mains. A slice of cinnamon 'pain perdu' has a hole in the centre which is filled with two scoops of delicious looking banana and passion fruit sorbet. A banana beignet, a stained glass window of wafer thin cooked banana, is edged into the ice and it's another mini installation to be taken out to the customers now thinning out as the lunch rush starts to come to an end.

Back at the main pass all is finished. The lights go out as if at the finale of a show and their bright warm glow, which has been the centre of attention, is replaced by the more mundane work lights of the kitchen. People are clearing their stations and Chris calls out his thanks to the team and begins clearing his own. They'll be doing it all again in just over four hours, so there's no time to lose.

london eating
November 2004
restaurant spotlight
In the kitchen at Foliage