Nicholas Lander on the career changes of Christian Delteil

These photographs show French chef, Christian Delteil, at distinct periods of his culinary career: as a young chef and as he is today in front of his half-a-million-pound stoves at Bank restaurant, Aldwych, part of a three-strong restaurant group of which he is managing director.

Christian Delteil Two sets of figures highlight this transition. After passing an exam at 13 and a half to prove to the French educational authorities that he was bright enough to leave school, Delteil set off in 1967 on a three-year apprenticeship during which he was paid absolutely nothing for the first three months and then the princely sum of 150 French francs a month, plus board and lodging, for six days' work a week over lunch and dinner for the next 33 months. Today, he employs 40 chefs who each work 48 hours, or six shifts, a week maximum, on a basic salary of £200 a week, feeding 300 customers a day, generating the restaurant's annual turnover of £6 million.

But behind these photos lies an even more fundamental change in the chef's profession. When Delteil eventually came to London in 1975 to work at Le Gavroche, Mayfair, after a heated exchange of letters with chef/proprietor Albert Roux as to whether his weekly starting salary should be £55 or £65 (which Delteil won!), it was considered only right and proper that France would be the source for the best kitchen brigades.

Both sides of the Atlantic benefited: London and the south from the emergence of the Roux brothers, Pierre Koffman, Jean-Louis Tabaillaud and the recently retired Michel Bourdain amongst others; and the US from the example set by Alain Sailhac, Jean-Jacques Rachou, Jean Joho and Jean-Louis Palladin who sadly died earlier this year.

Christian Delteil The very different sounding names of their successors highlight their very different origins: Shaun Hill, Gordon Ramsay, Rowley Leigh, Michael Caines, Gary Rhodes, Rick Stein and Aaron Paterson are heading principally British brigades today whilst Gary Danko, Anne Quatrano, Ed Brown and Charlie Trotter are doing the same in the US.

We have almost come to expect talented British and American chefs as a fact of restaurant life but their existence is not that long-standing and they would not have come to prominence without the example set by their French mentors and in a way by the rather formal, slightly suffocating French culinary straighjacket which gave them the restrictions to fight against, to enable them to find their own culinary identity.

Delteil's story, from the most classic of apprenticeships in a restaurant which served nothing out of season and only French wines to a modern brasserie which serves seared tuna and pickled daikon and wines from 10 different countries, epitomises many of these changes.

'I was born in Caussade, near Montauban, in a fertile valley of the Garonne where stepping out of the front door was like putting your nose in a fridge today – all the smells came wafting through. As a boy I remember picking Charentais melons, working in the maize fields and the Monday market that was full of ducks, pork and truffles, ' Delteil explained.

'I wanted to be a chef for two reasons. Firstly, I have always associated food with sociability and happiness, that is why I always enjoy cooking even on a Sunday. Chefs, I believed then and still do today, are invariably happy people. But, also, and I think this was my father's influence, chefs once they had qualified could travel easily although our horizons were much shorter then, Provence in the summer and the Alps or the Pyrenees in the winter. Today, of course, for a talented chef there are no geographical limits.'

The subsequent three years' hard labour at Les Ambassadeurs in Cahors, now closed, failed to dampen Delteil's enthusiasm. 'Initially, I was not even allowed in the kitchen and only trusted with the washing up. To clean the copper pans we had to make our own paste using flour, salt, vinegar and egg whites. Then when I eventually graduated to the kitchen proper my main task was going to the cellar, not for wine but for coal to light the ovens. Eventually, I was moved on to the meat section and my education began under a chef who had been with Montaignier, a disciple of Escoffier's: how to debone a rabbit or prepare a hare for lièvre à la royale which requires taking the bones out of the animal's back without damaging the skin.'

Christian Delteil This was only 25 years ago but there was no freezer. 'We made all the icecreams and sorbets daily and even when I came to Le Gavroche in 1975 I can remember making the sorbets in a wooden barrel with crushed ice and salt.' And without a freezer, Delteil reminisced, they still managed to make omelette norvégienne, baked Alaska, to order, whipping up eight egg yolks in a large copper bowl.

Delteil's travels subsequently took him to kitchens in the Pyrenees, Burgundy, Lourdes and Toulouse, military service cooking for an admiral in Brittany, and then to Chewton Glen in Hampshire, where he made his name in the UK, before opening his own restaurant, L'Arlequin, in Battersea. But he will always remember what he learnt from a 70-year-old chef during a summer in Provence – and how.

'It was a lovely hotel that was very busy at the weekends and on Friday mornings this elderly chef used to cycle in to work in the kitchens. He recognised that I wanted to learn so he took me aside and offered to teach me everything he knew in return for a bottle of port a week. He had to drink to work which was, sadly, just part of the profession in those days. I wanted to learn but had no money so every Monday I used to order a bottle of port from the cellar for my sauces and terrines but make them using something else. I would hide the bottle in the smelly fish boxes out the back which no one else would go near other than this chef. And he did teach me a great deal.'

Over the past 20 years Delteil has been passing on this knowledge to those who have worked under him. 'I have the greatest respect for this new generation of British chefs because, whereas in France it has been been part of our culture for decades, here chefs have had to go out, taste and learn for themselves.'

But, as he looked around the restaurant emptying after a busy lunch and being prepared for a group of 150 pre-theatre, he added, 'Despite all the physical and financial changes, the profession still fundamentally remains the same. It is about caring for the customer.'

Bank, 1 Kingsway, London WC2 (tel 020-7379 9797)
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