Having spent limited time in top professional kitchens including Andrew Fairlie's, Michel Roux Jr's, Tom Kitchin's and Paul Tamburrini's, I thought I had a fair grasp of how it all worked.

After all, I've watched staff at every station from mise-en-place to pastry, spent time with chef at the pass, and heard the communal response of "oui, chef!" to his instructions 100 times.

But then, I've only ever been (gratefully) tolerated as an observer, not as a cook. This week something happened to make me realise how much goes on under the radar, and that there is a network of vital nuances visible only to the trained professional.

What happened was that, in one single sitting, I read Michael Gibney's compelling real-time account of 24 hours in the life of a sous-chef at a fine-dining restaurant in Manhattan.

In his chosen timescale the kitchen feeds 300 diners. Thanks to a clump of bookings taken from 8pm, they will do 30 covers every half-hour for three solid hours, during which time they will serve a group of "nettlesome hipster critics", whom he dismisses as "burrs under the saddle".

That's 180 plates of appetisers, 180 plates of entree and about 120 plates of dessert over 200 minutes. As he says, the situation is "Madness. Pure f****** massacre".

It's a fascinating read, though Gibney isn't doing an Anthony Bourdain by spilling the beans about the seedier side of the kitchen; instead his story - culled from his own experience of various kitchens since starting as a dishwasher at the age of 16 - reveals the dedication and unwavering professionalism of the out-of-sight kitchen brigade - and their fear of the head chef.

All they crave is the merest hint of praise from him to keep going through the long, hard struggle of 15-hour shifts six or seven days a week. Making Chef angry with poor food can upset the balance in the kitchen and completely ruin a service.

It's part of the job of the sous-chef, "the great leader's second in command, lieutenant, executor of Chef's wishes", to avoid that by acting as go-between. In a difficult job that requires a huge amount of physical labour as well as the ability to delegate, the sous stands at the pass with Chef while he dresses the dishes to accentuate their "visual dynamism" while managing the tickets (orders), grouping the pick-ups, controlling the flow. The sous tastes the food brought to Chef, and sends it back if it's not right before the boss gets the chance.

One of the loudest messages here is the importance of working together in a team. That's not to say there's not a lot of smoking and drinking involved. Many cooks report for duty with hangovers. As his still-drunk colleague puts it, "Bro, shoeless drunk. Completely wasted." Most work through their shift; one in his story doesn't make it and vomits into a sink, leaving Gibney to take over the busy fish section halfway through service.

There's detail on the importance of hygiene and proper food storage - another of a sous-chef's responsibilities. Work stations must be clean, tidy and well organised at all times. And fish - the most delicate of all foodstuffs in the kitchen, with the shortest shelf-life, highest price tag and weakest constitution - can become easily damaged by exposure to temperature fluctuations, causing it to acquire an unattractive smell, develop slime, fail to sear, and go floppy. In store, fish must be protected from air and shrouded in ice, with whole fish sitting upright and portioned fish wrapped tightly and laid out flat. The fish box (storage chill), above all places, must be immaculate.

And in the meat chill there is only one objective: to keep the chicken stored below and separate from everything else.

"Chicken is a haven for bacteria," Gibney says, "and its exudate - chicken juice - travels like quicksilver. No other protein can cross-contaminate its neighbours quite like chicken." And eggs, though relatively innocuous when whole (bacterial distribution in industrially produced eggs is one contaminated per 20,000), can contaminate quickly when broken. The US Department of Health levies steep fines against restaurants for broken eggs.

Among his other tasks such as checking invoices against delivery, Gibney offers some valuable apercus. Minimalist menu descriptions are deliberate, designed to deliver that all-important element of surprise. The sagacious chef, he suggests, recognises the power of concealment. Some of the dialogue between staff is funny and revealing. As service peaks, finding space on the stove becomes competitive. "Whose rondeau is this on my flat-top?" asks one commis. The answer is "My bad, dog. That's me." Another riposte from an overworked cook to Gibney's request for more sauce is: "Do I look like an octopus?"

At the end of the day, the most important thing is not pleasing the Chef; it's pleasing the customer. "Service is our industry," he says. "We are simply here to feed people. What we do is the work of servants."

Bottoms up to them all.

Sous Chef: 24 Hours In The Kitchen by Michael Gibney is published by Canongate at £12.99 (e-book £10.99).