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