WITH THE STOVES scrubbed down and the last of the evening's diners finishing their drinks, three chefs from Flinders Lane's pumping Thai canteen, Chin Chin, leave the warmth of the kitchen and step out into the chill of a Melbourne night. Sous chef David Rodgers, junior sous Owen Quinn and chef de partie Gemma Mikyeong Im have worked all day and all night making food to make other people happy. They walk down the narrow lane dodging people whose nights are already well under way. Or, judging by the unsteady trio of young women they pass - one of whom is carrying her high heels by the straps - just about to finish.
The three chefs walk a well-known route to the nearest place still open where they can get good food and drinks. Over the course of the day they have fed about 800 people, each of whom ordered two or three dishes. It's been a short day today. Just an eight-hour shift. If they had ''pulled a double" it would be a 9am-11pm day with an hour off after lunch, if they were lucky. Young and pumped after a busy service, they laugh and jostle each other.
A busy kitchen runs on adrenalin and Chin Chin is one of the busiest in town. In the 18 months since it opened it has served more than 400,000 customers. Head chef Benjamin Cooper runs the kitchen during service, calling the dishes to the pass, setting the pace and keeping the rhythm. The service is lightning-paced, with each chef juggling several tasks at once to keep up with the ticker tape of dockets that stretches the length of an entire wall.
The hospitality industry is a famously inhospitable place to work, with late nights, hot surfaces and sharp objects central to a chef's life. The temptations of alcohol and drugs are often present and the industry is littered with human wrecks broken by their own excess consumption or exhaustion. For most, however, the post-service meal and drinks are both a wind-down and a chance for kitchen teams to patch up minor emotional abrasions that have occurred during the hurly-burly of service.
RODGERS, QUINN and Mikyeong Im turn down a dark lane, push through an almost-hidden door in a city building and are enveloped in the plush warmth of Eau De Vie, a cocktail bar with speakeasy decor and a kitchen open until midnight. The Chin Chin team order food rich in salt and protein - a deep-fried zucchini flower filled with goat's cheese, sprinkled with olive dust, and a serve of chicken liver parfait. "And now,'' Rodgers says, ''that beer we were talking about." The conversation is a debrief, a blow-by-blow dissection of service replaying moments of heroic cooking. Quinn started earlier that day, 3pm, in Chin Chin's off-site commissary kitchen, preparing curries from scratch. He still carries the faintest whiff of garlic and ginger. The team take a long draught of their first drinks and fall back into their chairs.
A FEW BLOCKS AWAY the chefs at Pei Modern are heading out for a late-night meal as well. Head chef Matt Germanchis and his mate, MoVida Next Door head chef Sunny Gilbert, tramp through the dull fluorescent glow of Little Bourke Street. With them are Pei Modern sous chef George Scott-Toft and the head chef from Mt Erica Hotel, Aziz Wan Don. Germanchis, Gilbert and Wan Don spent time together working in Darwin and now, once a fortnight, they head out after service for a meal and a drink. "We're head chefs now," Germanchis says. "Our jobs are now more about mental agility than the physically demanding work done by the younger chefs." "I don't know about mental agility," Gilbert says mockingly. Germanchis gives him a fraternal elbow to the ribs and laughs. "Which means we've still got a bit of stamina left in us at the end of service," he says. They head to the hustle of Russell Street and China Bar. A modern Melbourne institution serving fast, tasty Chinese classics, it is packed at midnight on a weeknight. Couples sit at small tables sharing plates of noodles. A bearded, long-haired group of young men settle in at one table. "Got to get the Hainanese chicken," Gilbert says. For Germanchis? ''Combination crispy roast pork and duck meat platter." They add an order of rice and a curry with roti. "This is the fastest kitchen on the planet," Germanchis says. Gilbert adds: "Yeah! Watch this,'' and sets the timer on his smartphone. "Sometimes the food comes out of the kitchen before you order it," he says with a laugh. Four minutes, 42.7 seconds later, the meals arrive. The Hainanese chicken is redolent of garlic, ginger and spices, and the wet curry an aromatic beef rendang. The jocularity settles into serious eating punctuated by chef stories often involving the peccadillos of other chefs and which member of the front-of-house team they are ''seeing'' at present.
DOWN IN COLLINS Street, Chin Chin chefs Rodgers, Quinn and Mikyeong Im stand outside Mexican hot spot Mamasita. Open until 2am on Friday and Saturday night, tonight it closes at 12.30am. "S---," Rodgers says. Quinn concurs: "I was really looking forward to a michelada." Mikyeong Im looks confused. ''You know, those Mexican beer drinks with the Tabasco in it." They stand at the door discussing the food they would have ordered. "I would love a quesadilla right now," Quinn says. Rodgers says: "And some tacos." Quinn says: "Let's head to the Supper Inn." Rodgers is a NSW lad and has never been to the late-night Chinese stalwart. The trio head down Little Bourke, turn into Celestial Avenue, and climb the wooden staircase into the plain little dining room, fish tank in one corner, the dated decor part of its perennial charm. Chinese doughnuts dunked in congee washed down with Tsingtao beer are followed by crispy-skinned quail. With the adrenalin wearing off and the alcohol seeping in, the Chin Chin crew take their time savouring their meal.
THE HEATERS outside at Siglo, a bar overlooking Parliament House, make the alfresco last stop of the night a little warmer. There is a gentle stir in the rooftop bar as British celebrity chef Marco Pierre White - who is hosting the MasterChef Professionals series, filming at present - is shown to a table. Someone makes a joke about White's stock cube advertisements. Germanchis glances over at White, for whom he worked briefly in London many years ago. "Very briefly," he says with a laugh. "I forgot to turn up one day. I had just come back from seeing family in Greece and I was on Greek time." They laugh. An order is placed for a plate of cheese and some chicken liver parfait. Gilbert lights a cigarette. ''I used to love watching the sun come up over Parliament House,'' he says. "Those days are past now." They sit in silence as the last tram bound for Brunswick screeches around its tracks on the corner below.
WE ARE ON THE BALCONY OF Chin Chin head chef Benjamin Cooper's Warrandyte home. Light streams in through the canopy of gum trees and somewhere in the distance a kookaburra lets out a cackle. Cooper has finished work early and been out for a bike ride. His three young children burst into the room. "The reality for chefs as we get older is that we have families," Cooper says.
"We rise up the kitchen brigade and get to have a roster that allows us a more normal life," he says, cutting into a loaf of sourdough and slicing through some ripe tomatoes. "Rich food and alcohol late at night is not good for someone at the top of their profession."
He lays some cheese, salami and tomatoes on the bread and gently toasts the sandwich in a heavy frying pan. "So for me now it's a toasted sandwich with the kids or hummus with vegetables." Cooper's boys run by. "These are the centre of my world now."
The chefs' late-night haunts
Nicky Riemer - Union Dining
I am finished by about 11pm and try to get to France-Soir in South Yarra before the kitchen closes. I order a little plate of spicy steak tartare. It really soothes the body and brains after a busy night.
■ 11 Toorak Road, South Yarra, daily noon-midnight.
Andrew McConnell - Cutler & Co.
I am getting too old for all-night benders, finishing with burgers at 4am. For me these days it's The European for something light. Usually a plate of salad or vegetables and some really good jamon.
■ 161 Spring Street, city, Sun-Thu 7am-11pm, last orders 10.45pm, Fri-Sat 7am-midnight, last orders 11.45pm.
Ben Shewry - Attica
Because I am on the road home most nights (Shewry lives on the Bellarine Peninsula) my options are pretty limited. Occasionally I drop off at Texas Hamburgers in Geelong and order a burger with the lot.
■ 28 Mercer Street, Geelong, Mon-Thu 5am-10pm, open 24 hours Fri-Sun.
Chris Bonello - Bistro Vue
After work I head to Ling Nam and can pretty much order everything, but the favourite has to be duck with XO sauce.
■ 204 Little Bourke Street, city, daily 5.30pm-3.30am.
Riccardo Momesso - Sarti
I finish up the day with a late-night plate of snow crab with ginger and noodles at Crystal Jade washed down with a Tsingtao beer.
■ 154 Little Bourke Street, city, daily 11.30am-3pm, 5.45-11pm.
Matt Wilkinson - Pope Joan
I just love Gerald's Bar and order some salami and a cheese plate. Something nice and light before I hit the sack.
■ 386 Rathdowne Street, Carlton North, Mon-Sat, 5-11pm.
■ Eau De Vie 1 Malthouse Lane, Mon-Sat, 5pm-1am; kitchen shuts midnight
■ Mamasita Level 1, 11 Collins Street, Mon-Wed, noon-midnight; Thu, noon-12.30am; Fri-Sat, noon-2am
■ China Bar 235 Russell Street, Sun-Thu, 11am-3am; Fri-Sat, 11am-6am
■ Supper Inn 15 Celestial Avenue, daily, 5.50pm-2.30am
■ Siglo Level 2, 161 Spring Street, Mon, 8pm-3am; Tue-Fri, 5pm-3am; Sat-Sun, 8pm-3am