GOURMET IN THE SNOW

A new breed of chalet owners and operators are putting gourmet food to the top of the menu, so there’s no longer any need to settle for school dinner-style meals after a day on the slopes. But what is driving the ski cuisine revolution?

Blame Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay, but we’ve become a nation of foodies obsessed with eating well. Since the celebrity chefs arrived on the scene in the late 80s/early nineties, good food has become fashionable. British cuisine has steadily evolved and improved, while the British public has become addicted to food porn in the form of endless TV cookery programmes, glossy recipe books and luscious food magazines.

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This new attitude has raised people’s expectations of food, and canny chalet companies have realised that to stay ahead in the increasingly competitive winter sports market, the key is to focus on fabulous food as well as top-end accommodation.

Chalet cuisine used to consist of hearty cottage pies and stodgy lasagnes cooked by fresh-faced students who were just getting to grips with boiling an egg. Twenty years ago it was a standing joke that you would probably be helping the person running the chalet to cook. But while some tour operators are still employing spotty Gap-year teens with very little experience, smaller chalet companies have realised that today’s discerning holiday maker is looking for top quality cuisine in luxurious surroundings.

Helen Raemers, founder of The Alpine Club, a boutique chalet operator in St Martin de Belleville in the Three Valleys, comments: “Our guests expect high quality food. Many of them are city bankers and lawyers and they are used to dining out in the best restaurants. They are used to exceptional food that is beautifully presented. We recognise that and know they want an equally impressive gourmet experience when they are on holiday.”

The Alpine Club’s policy is to employ passionate, motivated and professional chefs who have a love for food, rather than seasonal staff who’ve been sent on a quick cookery course.

“We want to delight our guests and exceed their expectations. By employing committed professionals, we can ensure that our guests’ extremely high standards are met, and often exceeded,” says Helen.

For small operators, providing excellent food has become key to pitching themselves above the rest. By remaining small, they are able to maintain a really high standard and have always been able to hire excellent chefs, often from Michelin star or two AA Rosette rated restaurants and five-star hotels. They can promise qualified chefs and some even publish the names and resumes of their team.

The Alpine Club, for example, has hired two chefs for winter 2013-2014 who have both worked at a number of top-notch restaurants, developing their craft and honing their fine dining skills. Richard Lonie, who is based at Chalet Abode, has worked at the Harwood Arms, which has the first and only Michelin star to be awarded to a London pub, as well as Esquire, in Brisbane, which received The Good Food Guide Restaurant of the Year for two years running and was the only restaurant in Queensland to achieve the coveted three-hat status. Charles Marriott, who is based at Chamois Lodge, has worked at The Bingham in Richmond which has three AA rosettes, as well as Paul Merrett’s The Victoria, which has 2 AA rosettes and also won best gastro pub in London.

Richard comments: “The best food to cook is simple yet elegant, getting down to the real roots and depth of a particular ingredient — especially if it’s fresh, wholesome and locally grown. That is what makes food a gastronomic gem in my eyes.”

Winter sports holidays are one of the few times people feel they can indulge in their passion for good food without guilt as they are out exercising all day and so can enjoy a four-course extravaganza without worrying about their waistline. However, an increasing interest in health and knowing where their food has been sourced does mean that while people want to eat well, they want to be reasonably healthily too.

Helen continues: “People are now thinking in terms of locally-sourced food, and also about fat and sugar content and lighter, healthier options rather than pure carbs. They are also interested in super foods. I think these changes are driven by more exposure to food on television and in the media and a greater awareness of health issues.”

The media can make the opposite happen too, of course. The soaraway success of The Great British Bake-Off, for example, has made us all cake-crazy. We have become more interested in more fancy cake options, with the result that the bar has been pushed even higher and more pressure has been put on the traditional chalet afternoon tea.

“We are certainly focusing in our chef training on imaginative cake combinations, beautiful presentation and deliciousness,” says Helen. “And our open-plan kitchens are the perfect place to watch our professional chalet chefs create stunningly decadent cakes”

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But the desire to have some control over what they eat has led some operators to allow guests some collaboration with the chefs in advance of their holidays. The Alpine Club, for example, discusses food preferences, requirements and allergies in detail with guests either over the phone or via email before the start of their holidays.

By offering exceptional cuisine, chalet operators have found that it increases the value of their product and can often be a vital selling point for smaller operators who are competing with the big name package brands.

This intense competition has clear benefits for the consumers. With chalet operators all vying to outdo each others’ products, the quality keeps improving while the prices remain keen, making gourmet ski holidays incredible value for money.  

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