MOUN­TAIN COOK­ERY

The knives come out as So­phie Gard­ner-roberts learns what it takes to be a moun­tain chalet host

France - - Contents -

Dis­cover the spe­cial skills needed to be an Alpine chalet host.

It was a grey au­tumn morn­ing, but things were def­i­nitely hot­ting up at the Av­enue Cook­ery School in Lon­don. Steam was bil­low­ing from pots, soups were bub­bling gen­tly and knives were cut­ting away fran­ti­cally. Five teams, in­clud­ing mine, were pre­par­ing a three-course meal to sat­isfy the rig­or­ous de­mands of our judge, Susie Large, from chalet hol­i­day com­pany Ski Beat.

Founded nearly 30 years ago, Ski Beat of­fers 53 catered chalets across 11 re­sorts in the French Alps. The chalet host plays a piv­otal role in pro­vid­ing the high­qual­ity ser­vice that guests ex­pect, so the re­cruit­ment process is de­mand­ing. Can­di­dates nor­mally go through sev­eral in­ter­views, the first of which is cook­ing a three-course meal in a group ses­sion un­der the watch­ful eye of re­cruit­ment man­ager Susie.

“Do you think this is bal­samic vine­gar or crème de cas­sis?” asked Jeff Fuidge, my part­ner-in-cook­ing for the day, as he handed over a lit­tle glass pot, swish­ing the dark liq­uid around. I leant over, si­mul­ta­ne­ously stir­ring a pot of onion soup, and gave it a sniff. “Bal­samic, I think that’s for the cas­sis sauce,” I replied, re­turn­ing my at­ten­tion to the soup, while keep­ing one eye on the mashed pota­toes.

The pres­sure was on for Jeff and me to pro­duce a typ­i­cal Ski Beat meal as we were put in the same in­ter­view con­di­tions as can­di­dates for chalet host­ing. In a lim­ited amount of time, we had to serve onion soup topped with a cheesy crou­ton, fol­lowed by roasted

duck breast in a cas­sis sauce served with mashed pota­toes, car­rots and leeks be­fore fin­ish­ing off with lemon pots and rose­mary bis­cuits. Four other teams of two com­peted against us and we were all asked to taste each oth­ers’ dishes.

“We need our hosts to be able to cook a per­fect meal and talk while do­ing so,” said Susie, “as a chalet host, you are not shut away in a back kitchen, you are cook­ing in front of the guests, who might fancy a chat or ask you about your day.”

Qual­i­ties such as friend­li­ness, team play­ing, ded­i­ca­tion and thought­ful­ness and a drive to go above and be­yond are es­sen­tial. Susie said she could pick out a good host when they helped an­other can­di­date. “If some­one piles the sink full of dirty dishes and leaves them there, then I won’t em­ploy them,” she added sternly.

In­tense sea­son

As we sat down to taste all the starters (no two bowls of onion soup were the same), the Ski Beat team talked us through what it is like be­ing a chalet host. Op­er­a­tions di­rec­tor Emma Knight in­sisted that a good at­mos­phere within the host­ing team was es­sen­tial be­cause of the in­ten­sity and length of the sea­son. “It is hard work, but it is also a lot of fun. Those five months go by very quickly but ev­ery­one is there for the same rea­son: their love for moun­tains,” she said. Hosts, who can range from grad­u­ates to young re­tirees, get time off to make the most of the Alpine slopes by go­ing ski­ing or snow­board­ing.

As­pir­ing hosts do not have to be pro­fes­sional chefs, but they do need to love cook­ing and to have rea­son­able ex­pe­ri­ence. Suc­cess­ful can­di­dates can choose to go on a chalet host­ing train­ing course, such as the two-week course run by The Av­enue Cook­ery School.

The owner and head chef, Diana Hors­ford, be­gan as a chalet chef, and her son Richard, who teaches at the school, has had ex­pe­ri­ence as a chalet host. As he demon­strated the ba­sic tech­niques of cut­ting onions, gar­lic and veg­eta­bles in the most ef­fec­tive way, he told us stories of his sea­son work­ing in a chalet, in­clud­ing chop­ping off part of his thumb or learn­ing how to cover up a wonky dessert.

Cook­ing at a moun­tain chalet poses par­tic­u­lar tech­ni­cal chal­lenges. Be­cause of the higher al­ti­tude, wa­ter boils at a lower tem­per­a­ture, so one of the first things Ski Beat asks can­di­dates to do is cook a per­fect soft-boiled egg. Liq­uids evap­o­rate more quickly, caus­ing any­thing with wa­ter in it to dry out, and hosts have to learn how to com­pen­sate when mak­ing sauces and gravies. They must also take into ac­count the in­creas­ing num­ber of di­etary re­quire­ments among guests and be able to talk to par­ents about their chil­dren’s pref­er­ences.

Af­ter cri­tiquing ev­ery­body’s pre­sen­ta­tion skills for the main dish, we de­voured the creamy and tangy lemon pots and fi­nally were able to re­lax af­ter the hec­tic but im­mensely fun morn­ing.

Jeff and I had our mo­ment of glory when we won the top prize for clean­est work sur­face, a well-de­served re­ward, we thought. “So who here feels they could do a sea­son of chalet host­ing?” asked Susie. We all looked at each other, notic­ing our rosy cheeks, shin­ing brows and messy hair, and nod­ded vig­or­ously. If I were a good skier, I would be tempted to sign up now.

Ski Beat Tel: 01273 855 100 skibeat.co.uk

The Av­enue Cook­ery School 3 En­ter­prise Way Wandsworth Lon­don, SW18 1FZ Tel: 07958 171 787 theav­enue­cook­eryschool.com Two-week chalet host­ing course £1,350.

So­phie and her cook­ery part­ner Jeff pre­pare a cas­sis sauce at the re­cruit­ment ses­sion

TOP: So­phie and other par­tic­i­pants hard at work in the Av­enue Cook­ery School kitchen in Lon­don; ABOVE: The Chalet Laponia in the La Plagne 1800 re­sort, one of the chalets on Ski Beat’s books

ABOVE: Ri­val onion soups are com­pared

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