How to be a chalet chef

Reckon you could cook for 22 hungry skiers? Veteran chalet chef Lucy Cufflin reckons she has a foolproof recipe for training up complete novices

James Bedding plating up the salmon mousse

Trying my hand at the salmon mousse

Imagine: you are in a chalet with 22 skiers and snowboarders. Their faces are flushed with today’s exertions; they look ravenous, as though they could strip the cook to the bone. You’re the cook. How do you feel?

As I peer from the safe side of the kitchen door, I diagnose my feeling as blind panic. What if I poison someone? Will anyone dare try my salmon mousse? Why am I here?

The last question I can answer: to find out what goes in to providing the hundreds of thousands of chalet dinners that British skiers wolf down every winter. Few of the youngsters conjuring up the food have any formal training; how do they cope?

I can empathise: though I am more than twice as old as the average member of a ski chalet’s staff, that advantage is not reflected in my culinary skills. The shelves of cookery books at home are testament not to my repertoire but to the generosity of family and friends despairing at facing the same dishes time and again.

As for cooking for 22 – a dinner party a quarter the size will floor me. I invariably leave preparations until the last minute – probably a journalist’s misplaced belief in the motivational power of a looming deadline. By the time guests have arrived, I’m a stressed-out wreck – and half-sozzled, thanks to the wine I’ve downed to help me cope.

So, when the holiday company Skiworld told Telegraph Travel it had devised a portfolio of menus for its chalets that were not only delicious but so easy to master that they were virtually idiot-proof, a journalistic challenge presented itself.

Which is how I find myself in the west London kitchen of Lucy Cufflin, who runs Skiworld’s catering and trains recruits at the start of each season. She is to teach me a handful of dishes that I can use to feed a chalet of 22 in the Swiss resort of Verbier for a day.

Lucy explains how she has distilled 25 years of cooking experience – from heading a kitchen at a large hotel in Tignes to many seasons of working in chalets and running a catering company in Britain – into her recipes, many of which have gone into a whopping 350-recipe book, Lucy’s Food. I confess to my difficult relationship with cookery books. “Quite normal,” she says. “On average people only ever get around to trying three recipes from any cookbook.”

The secret of a happy chalet, says Lucy, is “foolproof, fabulous recipes” that allow staff to spend less time in the kitchen and more on the snow. And happy hosts and fine food make for satisfied guests.

She hands me a sheaf of recipes, a two-week rota that cycles through the season. The recipies sound good – from a mascarpone fondue to chorizo served with a crème fraîche mash and courgettes, and desserts such as panna cotta with orange and bay syrup. Each day has a precise timetable: for my proposed dinner, I am told what to prepare in advance after breakfast, and what to do at 6pm, at 6.30, 7, 7.30, 7.45, 7.55, 8 and 8.15.

We launch into the starter: a pâté of fresh and smoked salmon. I whizz up the fish in a blender, along with some cream, milk and eggs, pour the goo into a baking tin I’ve lined with greaseproof paper, and in a couple of minutes I’m done. My first ever terrine – a doddle.

I then prepare the dill-and- cucumber dressing, and pause to taste the vinaigrette mix from a teaspoon. “Try it with a piece of cucumber instead,” says Lucy. “Tip – you never eat a dressing or a sauce on its own, so when you’re preparing it, taste it with what it goes with.”

We start on the gratin dauphinois, peeling and slicing potatoes before frying some diced onions to scatter between the layers. All the time, Lucy is bubbling over with suggestions. She shows me how to make onion-chopping less tearful by using the roots as a grip; how to fry in butter without it turning black (mix half-and-half with vegetable oil), and extols the virtues of sweating onions. “Don’t brown them over a high heat,” she says. “Cook them slowly at low temperature with the lid on, and you get the most fantastic flavour. I get chalet staff to fry onions in big batches; they keep in the fridge for a week.”

She fixes me in the eyes. “This is probably the most important thing you’ll learn all day.” I promise not to forget, while trying to figure out what I can do to stop my head exploding.

We breeze through the rest of the main course – confit of duck with a dark port sauce, carrot ribbons and broccoli florets – before tackling the dessert, a pear tart with a simple cinnamon-flavoured pastry. I am astonished how straightforward the recipes are – and how much mess I manage to make, none the less.

At the end of the day, when we taste it all, I’m happier still. I am amazed how delicate my first-ever fish pâté tastes, while the duck in its sauce of port, orange, ginger and green peppers feels luxuriously opulent – and the potatoes lush and creamy. As a dessert fanatic, I fall above all for the pear tart: the shortbread-like pastry flavoured with cinnamon partners perfectly the pears, whose flesh has turned as soft as mousse. I nearly swoon.

The team

The team

Lucy suggests I practise at least once before the big night, so back in Verbier I invite some hungry ski instructors over. I begin cooking in good time, cut myself only superficially on the tin of duck, applaud what I consider a skilful catch of a greased duck leg after it flies out of my hand, and by the time I have finished – only 15 minutes behind schedule – feel well satisfied with the extravagant mess I have created in the kitchen. My first guest looks shocked – but then he is Swiss, and the Swiss, I’ve found, aren’t great at chaos.

The food vanishes quickly, apart from the potatoes. I should have followed Lucy’s advice and checked that they were fully cooked. “How interesting,” says another Swiss guest diplomatically: “chewy potatoes.” But the rest is hailed a success, and it is only towards the end of the meal that I am remotely drunk – a personal triumph.

On the big day at 7.30am I am with Lucy in the kitchen at the Chalet Quatre Saisons, with half an hour to go before the first guests come down for breakfast. I am hyperventilating already. I halve some tomatoes, slot them in the oven with a regiment of chipolatas and start sautéing potatoes in batches. I am reassured by the presence of two chalet boys, Sam and Oli, who look very relaxed as they put out cereals, tea and coffee, and take the first orders. The third, Liam, looks even more relaxed – but then I’m taking his job for the day.

At 8am the first guests appear, and moments later Sam appears with the first of a string of orders – and from then I’m juggling hotplates, sausages, potatoes and tomatoes in between scrambling eggs.

Best of all, each time I’ve served up a batch, Oli washes the pan and offers me a clean one. I wonder if this is what has been lacking in my cookery career to date – two energetic and cheerful youngsters to do all the cleaning up.

By 9am I am exhausted – but we need fuelling, and sit down for our own breakfast instead. “I love this time of day,” says Sam. “It’s the only chance we get to sit down quietly and catch up.”

Soon, though, Sam is off cleaning bedrooms, Oli is clearing up the dining room and I am “prepping” dinner as per Lucy’s menu. Third time round, conjuring up the salmon pâté is a breeze. Cooking for 22, though, is a team activity, so Sam and Oli join in peeling potatoes for the gratin and pears for the tart.

By early afternoon all three are baked and ready, and I want to go home for a quiet coma – but Lucy will have none of it. I’m to experience the proper chalet lifestyle, she says, “and that means going out skiing no matter how tired you are, or how late you were up last night”.

So out we all go for a blast of mountain air and some energetic runs. Lucy and I watch the lads fling themselves off small cliffs. I give the jumps a miss – today is terrifying enough as it is.

At 6pm we’re back in the chalet – and the schedule says it’s time to remove the duck legs from the cans, arrange them in the roasting tins and make the port sauce. Half an hour later, it’s time to make the cucumber dressing and the croûtes for the salmon; half an hour after that, time to warm the dishes, prepare all the garnishes; and for the last half-hour before we are due to serve, the pace ratchets up steadily. I can hear my nerves fraying.

As the guests sit down, a pattern of choreography emerges in the kitchen: we are due to plate up the starters, yet there isn’t enough room to lay out 22 plates at the same time. We create a production line, Sam ferries the plates out into the dining room – and by the time he has carried the last, we are well on to plating up the next course.

The ballet continues in a similar vein for the next two courses, as a tide of white plates surges in and out of the kitchen. My mind is numb – and when the last plate of pear tart has gone out, it is a few moments before I realise the ordeal is over.

I poke my head out of the kitchen, and am relieved to see everyone is not just alive but smiling – and there’s a round of applause to celebrate.

What have I learnt? That the energy and enthusiasm of youth is miraculous; that life can be sweet if you don’t leave everything to the last minute; and that dinner parties – whether at home or on the slopes – needn’t be a nightmare. And I now have a few hundred recipes I can’t wait to try out – and this time round, I know it’s going to be fun.

Further information from Skiworld (08444 930 430 www.skiworld.co.uk).  Lucy’s Food (Hardie Grant, £20) is available from booshops and via Skiworld.

Verbier, looking out from Attleas towards Mont Blanc massif

View from the Verbier ski area, with Mont Blanc on the horizon

Recipes

Fresh and smoked salmon paté with dill and cucumber dressing

Serves 10-12
Preparation time 15 minutes
Cooking time 45 minutes – 1 hour

Ingredients
300g fresh salmon, skinned
75g smoked salmon, cut into thin strips
300ml double cream
100ml milk
4 eggs
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon of dried tarragon

For the dressing:
¼ small cucumber, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dill
1 tablespoon wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon caster sugar
salt and pepper
8 slices of stale French bread

1 Put all ingredients for the paté into a blender and blend until fairly smooth to very smooth (depending on preference).

2 Line a 1kg loaf tin with baking paper. Pour in the salmon mixture and cover with foil.

3 Fill a roasting tin half full with warm water and place the loaf tin into it. Cook in an oven at 180C for 1 hour until set and firm to the touch. Cook and refrigerate.

4 Prepare little toasts using the slices of stale bread. Drizzle with oil and cook for 5 minutes at 190C. Make a simple vinaigrette with the olive oil, mustard, vinegar, sugar and salt and pepper, add the finely chopped cucumber and dill to make a little salad.

5 Remove the fish in its paper and put on a chopping board. Peel back the paper from the sides of the terrine and slice.

6 To serve, place a slice of the salmon paté on a plate, place 2 little toasts to one side, and drizzle the cucumber dressing on the other.

Confit de canard

Confit de canard

Confit of duck with dark port sauce

Serves 4
Preparation time 15 minutes
Cooking time 25 minutes

Ingredients
4 confit of duck legs
100ml of orange juice (from a carton is fine)
100ml port 100ml water
1 chicken stock cube
1 tsp green peppercorns in brine (drained and chopped finely)
2cm cube ginger, peeled and grated
salt and pepper
½ onion, peeled and chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon soy sauce
25g butter
1 teaspoon cornflour mixed with 1 tablespoon cold water in a cup
sprig of fresh parsley to garnish

To heat the duck:
200ml water
1 chicken stock cube

1 Remove the duck from the tin and separate into leg portions. Wipe off as much fat as you can. Keep some of the fat in a jar in the fridge to use for cooking potatoes, etc. Put the duck portions into an ovenproof dish. Put the water and stock cube into the dish and cover with foil. Bake at 190C for 30 minutes.

2 Meanwhile, make the sauce. Put all the other ingredients apart from the butter, parsley and cornflour into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer without a lid until you have only 200ml left and then sieve the sauce.

3 Add the cornflour and re-boil. Adjust the seasoning and leave to one side. This can be made ahead of time and re-heated in the saucepan.

4 Just before serving, reheat the sauce, add the chilled butter cut into cubes and stir all the time as it melts. This will thicken the sauce further and add a gloss.

5 Put the confit of duck onto the centre of a warmed dinner plate, place a pile of carrot ribbons on top, and spoon over the dark port sauce. Garnish with a large sprig of parsley or other fresh herbs.

Gratin Dauphinois

Serves 4
Preparation time 20 minutes
Cooking time 1½ hours at least

Ingredients
½ onion, peeled and finely chopped
25g butter, plus a little extra
1 tablespoon oil
3 very large potatoes, peeled/thinly sliced
125ml milk
125ml cream
1 clove garlic peeled and crushed
100g grated Emmental cheese
salt and pepper

1 Place the onion, butter and oil in a saucepan over a gentle heat with the lid on. Allow the onions to cook for 5 minutes or until they are soft and translucent.

2 Butter the inside of an ovenproof dish and arrange the potatoes, scattering the onions between the layers.

3 Put the milk, cream, garlic, salt and pepper into the empty onion pan and bring to the boil. Pour over the potatoes so the liquid comes ¾ of the way up the sides of the dish. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 1 hour at 190C.

4 Lift off the foil and stick a knife into the potatoes to see if they are cooked. They should be absolutely soft; if they are not cooked through, put them back in the oven, covered, for a further 15 minutes and test again. When they are completely cooked through, remove the foil and sprinkle with the grated cheese.

5 Return to the oven, this time uncovered, for a further 30 minutes. At the end of this time the potatoes should be golden brown with a thick creamy sauce. If they look dry add a little more cream, if there is a lot of thin liquid, spoon some out and discard.

This re-heats brilliantly. Make in the morning, or well ahead of time. They can keep warm for up to an hour; alternatively, reheat at 190C for 30 minutes uncovered with the cheese sprinkled over.

If re-heating, only cook the potatoes up to the point where the cheese topping is added. The potatoes must be cooked through or they will go brown as they sit during the day partially cooked.

Carrot ribbons

Serves 4
Preparation time 10 minutes
Cooking time 2 minutes

Ingredients
4 carrots

1 Peel the carrots and discard the peelings. Once peeled, continue to use the peeler in the same way producing lots of peelings of carrot. These can be done ahead of time and stored in a bag or bowl in the fridge until needed.

2 Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and literally a couple of minutes before serving put the carrots into the pan. Bring back to the boil and drain

3 Serve immediately in the centre of a warmed plate on top of the duck leg. Serve with tender boiled broccoli florets

Pear and cinnamon tart

Serves 10
Preparation time 15 minutes
Cooking time 35-45 minutes

Ingredients

For the pastry:
250g plain flour
125g caster sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
125g butter, cut into cubes
4 tablespoons cream

For the filling
5 well-shaped pears
icing sugar and whipped cream, to serve

1 Cut a circle of baking parchment 30cm in diameter. Put the flour, sugar, cinnamon and butter in a bowl and rub the fat and flour between your fingers and thumbs until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs in texture. Add the cream and squeeze the mix together until you get a pastry dough.

2 Turn out onto a floured surface and knead slightly. Divide the pastry in two. Roll one half out on the piece of baking parchment and lower into the 25cm diameter tin. Fold the paper behind the pastry and ease it into the tin and up the sides, pressing the pastry back into place over the folded parchment. Trim the pastry to 3cm high to stop it flopping forwards.

3 Peel the pears, cut them in half lengthways and cut out the core, leaving them in halves. Lay them on the pastry, cut side down pointing towards the centre.

4 Roll out the second piece of pastry and roll around the pin to move it. Unroll it over the pears and allow it to nestle over them. Press the edges together and trim the top piece so it fits. It does not matter if this breaks, simply push bits in where you have gaps or breaks, sticking it to the other pastry with a little water.

5 Bake at 190C for 35-45 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool. This can be made up to 8 hours ahead. To reheat from chilled, pop into the oven for 10-15 minutes.

6 To serve, slice the tart through the middle of each pear so that each slice contains 2 half-pears. Top with whipped cream and a sprinkle of icing sugar.

 

The dirty truth of the ski spring-clean

When all the snow has gone, the big clean-up begins – starting with a few surprises

Two skiers near Chalet Carlsberg, Attelas piste, with Mont Blanc in the distance

How much of the Alps will remain unspoilt for future generations?

You come across all manner of unexpected sights on the slopes of a ski resort at the end of the season. On an Easter trip to the Spanish Pyrenees, I saw a piste melt over the course of a week into a meadow – revealing a fence whose posts consisted of ski poles, presumably harvested from the strip of grass below the chairlift.

Such efficient recycling of the debris dropped by skiers is to be admired, but some of the litter dropped by skiers and snowboarders is of no use to anyone – and often toxic to the environment. According to The Summit Foundation, a Swiss organisation established to help protect the country’s nature and scenery, as many as 30,000 cigarette butts can be found under a single chairlift at the end of the season.

Whether you are a smoker or not, you will be welcome to join one of the many spring-cleaning operations organised over the coming weeks at ski areas in Scotland, the Alps and beyond. These usually take place after the official end of the season, and welcome visiting hikers and other holidaymakers as well as local volunteers.

The Big Spring Clean at Scottish resorts is organised by the Ski Club of Great Britain (0845 45 80780; www.skiclub.co.uk). Last year, more than 120 volunteers gathered more than 60 bags of rubbish, which ranged from a tin of sardines to a New York bus ticket. This year’s Big Spring Clean, to be held simultaneously at CairnGorm Mountain, Glenshee and Nevis Range, is on Sunday, June 12.

This clean-up is part of the Club’s Respect the Mountain campaign, established to raise awareness of environmental issues throughout the ski industry – and to show skiers and snowboarders how they can make their holidays more eco-friendly. The campaign’s opposite number in France, Mountain Riders, is the best source of information on spring-cleans at ski areas abroad.

Last year this organisation and its partners mobilised 6,000 volunteers to collect 65 tons of rubbish at more than 160 locations. Many resorts have not yet fixed the date of their clean-up for this year, but as they do, details will appear on the calendar of operations. You can also search by resort.

Both organisations offer plenty of ideas on how you can be a greener skier next season. The Ski Club of Great Britain, for example, offers a handy online Green Resort Guide that allows you to examine the environmental credentials of more than 230 ski areas worldwide – and choose your destination accordingly. The guide is updated annually.

Many of us will be upgrading our ski clothing or equipment between now and the start of next season, and it is worth thinking about the impact our choices have on the environment. You can find out more about how eco-friendly or otherwise different brands are in The Eco Guide to Mountain Gear, published by Mountain Riders. You can download a copy in English here– click on “Download the Eco Guide” on the menu on the left – or you can order a free printed copy from the Ski Club of Great Britain.

The Ski Club also sells a variety of items to help fund its Respect the Mountain campaign, from T-shirts to ecological paraffin-free ski wax, available here. The shop also offers portable pocket ashtrays that it claims are the first ever to be made from recycled, recyclable and biodegradable materials. You can get a pack of five for just £2.50 (actually, 1p plus p&p). Now, how many would you need to stub out 30,000 fags?

Further information

The Alpine Pearls association offers environmentally-friendly holidays in 24 resorts in various Alpine countries, including Switzerland’s Arosa. For detailed comparison of resorts in the USA, see the website of the National Ski Areas Association. A useful site for a wide range of environmental issues affecting ski resorts is the website of the Alpine Convention on Climate Change.

Les Moulins piste (Kids' Club, etc) in the heart of Verbier

  • Further information: the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the Verbier tourist office (www.verbier.ch).
  • Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch)

Speed skiing goes underground

A disused railway tunnel in a Genevan gorge offers an intriguing location for one of the world’s fastest skiers to train

Philippe May in the Geneva wind tunnel

Philippe May adopts a racing crouch

As the Swiss have so many spectacular mountains to choose from, you might find it odd they would opt to ski underground. In a city.

Perhaps they are drawn by Geneva’s reputation for high-speed underground travel – the city is, after all, home to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, where scientists accelerate sub-atomic particles through subterranean tunnels to close to the speed of light, and smash them together in the hope of discovering the secrets of creation among the debris.

The skiers’ experiments with speed, meanwhile, take place in a disused railway tunnel, concealed under a bridge spanning a gorge, high above the river Rhone. The location seems to have come straight from a James Bond film: a discreet flight of steps leads down the side of the Pont Butin, and up to a plain metal door built into the side of the gorge, invisible from the road above. Swinging open the heavy door, I half expect to see Q, tinkering with gadgets.

Philippe May in the wind tunnel

Philippe May clocks a speed of 236.5 kph

Instead I am greeted by staff from Geneva’s School of Engineers, who lead me deep into the cliffs lining the gorge to their biggest toy: a wind tunnel. We climb into a small cabin alongside, and squeeze around the operator seated at the control panel.

Through a window we can see a figure in a shiny red skin-tight suit, wearing a Darth Vader helmet. The operator turns on the fans, and as the wind picks up speed, the skier goes into a racing tuck, and the control cabin creaks ominously. Soon, a display on the computer is reading nearly 250 kph (155mph) – more than double the speed limit on a British motorway – and we can see the skier’s muscles quivering as he battles the forces bearing down on his head and body.

The skier is 40-year-old Philippe May from the Swiss resort of Verbier. Director of the Swiss Ski School there, he is also a passionate speed skier. Speed skiing is the fastest and arguably the purest form of ski racing: you simply point your skis straight down the mountain, tuck your body into as aerodynamic a shape as possible, and rocket as fast as you can through the speed trap at the bottom.

Ramp at the top of the speed skiing piste on the Glacier de Tortin, Mont-Fort

Speed-skiing ramp on the Mont-Fort

The best athletes can exceed the speed of a plane on take-off, and accelerate as quickly as a Formula 1 car, going from 0 to 200 kph in less than six seconds.

May is one of them: FIS World Champion in 2002, then Pro World Champion in 2007, he has been among the top three racers worldwide for nine consecutive years. He is also one of only five people in the world to have skied at 250 kph.

May is here today for two reasons. One is to train for the Speed Skiing World Championship, due to be held in Verbier in mid-April, high on the Mont-Fort glacier. The second is to launch a bid to break the world speed skiing record, which currently stands at 251.40 kph.

There is, however, an obstacle to setting a new record in Verbier: the fastest speed achieved on the glacier is 219.28 kph, recorded in 2010. The slope is simply not long enough to produce significantly faster speeds. Which is why Verbier is planning a stunt that could have been dreamed up by Ian Fleming: artificially lengthening the piste by extending it skywards.

James Bedding borrows equipment for speed skiing

The skis are a bit longer than I’m used to…

Since last May, engineers have been welding a 2.6-ton metal ramp, 23 metres (75 ft) long, which will effectively drape over the top of the glacier, creating a new, higher, starting point by the top station of the Mont-Fort cable car. The ramp’s designers estimate that by the time athletes reach the bottom of the ramp – roughly the starting point for previous record attempts – they will be travelling at about 120 kph. Skiing at motorway speeds down a ramp just 2 metres wide with an incline of more than 105 per cent will take a strong nerve – as, indeed, will getting down to the bottom of the glacier alive.

One of May’s tasks today is to test a new helmet, with improved streamlining. He is also trying on a new pair of fairings, strapped to the back of his calves – the only artificial aerodynamic aid allowed in this sport. Each of May’s tests lasts only about a minute, but when the wind finally dies down, and he takes off his helmet, he is sweating and thirsty – this is obviously hard work.

For today’s launch, journalists have been invited to experience the high winds of speed skiing for themselves. I climb into a thin, stretchy racing suit from the Swiss national team, squeeze through a narrow hatch from the control cabin into the wind tunnel, and clip my ski boots into a pair of bindings attached to the floor. Behind me are four giant turbines: I may be about to battle a ferocious head wind, but in fact I will be sucked backwards, from behind.

James Bedding dons a speed skiing helmet before entering the wind tunnelMay gives me some advice. “Tense all your muscles – especially your legs, abdomen, back – and stay in a racing tuck all the time,” he says. If I so much as raise my head, the wind will knock me backwards. Likewise, if I want to abort the test, I must not turn or wave: I should simply flick one index finger forwards. “And whatever you do, don’t drop the ski poles,” he says. They will get sucked into the giant turbine blades, and “sent back like shrapnel”. I don’t need telling twice.

The operator closes the hatch, settles in front of the computer, and switches on the four 75 kW fans. The wind rises steadily. I crouch quickly, sensing that the longer I wait, the harder it will be to mould my body into a racing tuck. I force my elbows onto my knees, as the gale buffeting me builds up strength. Projected onto the floor in front of me, I can see a video of myself, sideways on, and straighten my spine to streamline my head and back. I get the feeling that if I were to turn sideways, I would be sucked clean out of my ski boots.

When the wind has died down, one of the engineers climbs through the hatch into the tunnel. That was 100 kph, he says. How about going a little faster? I gulp. 100 kph is Force 10 on the Beaufort Scale, a storm capable of uprooting trees.

James Bedding in the wind tunnel

Clocking up 162 kph in the wind tunnel

Over the course of two more tests, we ratchet the speed up to 170 kph – nearly half as fast again as winds that would qualify as a Force 12 hurricane. By the time we have finished, my muscles are aching and I feel completely drained of energy: one extra gust of wind, and I would have spun over backwards.

It would take a speed half as fast again for May or any other skier to set a new world record – and I cannot begin to imagine what that would feel like. I will be there to watch the Speedmaster races, though, up on the Mont-Fort glacier – along with any other skiers or snowboarders who happen to be in resort on April 22 and 23.

Just before the world record attempt, the piste will stage the World Championship, from April 18 to 21. International Ski Federation (FIS) rules state that runs should not exceed 200 kph for safety reasons, so the start will be lowered accordingly. Verbier is expecting about 100 athletes, from up to 20 nations.

And just before the World Championships is possibly the most intriguing and compelling event of all: the “Pop KL”, held from April 16-17. This speed skiing event is open to everyone – or rather, any recreational skier with nerves of steel and a sufficiently cool head. According to May, many skiers achieve speeds on their first run of 100 to 120 kph, while by the end of the day the best are hitting 150 to 160 kph.

So, if you like idea of skiing at speeds that would earn you a fine on a motorway, now is your chance. Just make sure you read the small print of your travel insurance first…

 

Philippe May by the turbines of the wind tunnel

Philippe May by the turbines of the wind tunnel

  • Entering the Pop KL 2011 costs CHF 100 per person per day, including lunch and lift pass. For further information on all the speed skiing events, see www.xspeedski.net.
  • For general travel information: the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the Verbier tourist office (www.verbier.ch).
  • Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch)

The real life of the chalet boy

Two chalet boys in Verbier give an insight into their job – from cleaning chores to topless table service.

The release of the film ‘Chalet Girl’ this week may have put the spotlight on the armies of young women cooking and cleaning in resorts across the Alps, but one trend has attracted less coverage – the growing number of chalet boys. James Bedding talks to two who have been working the season in Verbier.

Sam Playfair, aged 21, is from Poole in Dorset. He is taking a year out from a degree in biomedicine at UEA in Norwich, and will return for two years this autumn.

Oli Jones, aged 23, is from Malvern in Worcestershire. He graduated last summer in Earth Sciences from Durham. He is weighing up whether to join a graduate training scheme in London or continue studying.

Sam Playfair and Oli Jones in front of the chalet where they work, Verbier

Sam (left) and Oli

On chalet boys vs chalet girls

Sam There’s lots of friendly rivalry with staff at other chalets. We’re always bantering about who’s best.

Sam When we get the feedback forms, or when we get tips, we always compare how much we get.

Oli Some guests ask why there aren’t any female staff. But we share a room, so we can’t have boys and girls.

Sam Most people, I imagine, think a girl is going to be more caring.

Skiworld's Mont aux Sources chalet in Verbier

The Mont aux Sources chalet in Verbier

Oli When we first meet the guests, sometimes I say to myself: I bet they’re thinking – it’s three lads…

Sam … they’re only out here for the piss-up.

Oli Whereas if they saw charming young girls, they might think: ah, they are going to look after us well.

Sam Sometimes guests are a bit stand-offish, but as soon as they get to know you – it only takes about a day – they are so much nicer.

Oli You can tell when people have been on a chalet holiday before, though, because they are more friendly.

Sam They’ll stack plates, and stuff. They are thinking: I’ll try to help this person out – rather than just, I’m eating my meal, and this machine is coming behind me to take my plate away. It’s very good to hear a thank-you.

Oli You really do appreciate it.

On becoming more eligible

Sam The main reason I wanted to do a season – apart from skiing – is cooking. Helping out every day, serving three-course dinners, you’re obviously going to improve a lot. It’s life skills, isn’t it? We have these great recipes we do like chorizo pork and banana tarte tatin – they’re really easy to do but they’re delicious.

Oli I told my mum I’ve been cooking, and I think she’s looking forward to me being back, seeing what my cooking’s like, while I’m applying for jobs.

Sam It’s the same with girls – you tell, them, and they say: ooh, you’re going to cook me a meal, then?

Oli And we can actually do it now!

Sam Playfair (left) and Oli Johnes wash up after breakfastA normal day

Oli We generally get up between seven and half seven, and serve hot breakfast from 8 to 9.

Sam As soon as guests have left the dining room, we eat our own breakfast – and chill out for five minutes. It’s the only time we get to sit down together and relax.

Oli When the guests have left the chalet, we start cleaning and prepping [preparing dishes] for the evening.

Oli We tried to work out the quickest way to get it all done, and done well, and that was to each have set roles, so we don’t get in the way of each other. I do most of the clearing up and washing up…

Sam … and I make the beds, clean the bathrooms. Then we hoover the foyer and lounge, and set up afternoon tea.

Oli Then it’s a matter of finishing up in the kitchen, prepping the dinner – and we’re done until 5.30, 6.

Sam We normally serve dinner at 7.30, so in the time in between, we’ve got to lay the table, set the room up, finish preparing the food…

Oli After dinner, it’s just cleaning the kitchen. Sam And a lot of washing up. And then you’ve got to set the table up for breakfast the next day.

Sam The first week, we didn’t have a break at all. We woke up at 7, and weren’t finishing until half-past midnight. Now, when we go really fast, we can get five, six hours off during the day.

On lack of sleep

Sam Wednesday’s the day off, so we have a big night out on Tuesday. And we normally have a big night out Wednesday, as well.

Mardi Gras celebrations in Verbier - a herd of Friesian cows

Party time – Mardi Gras in Verbier

Oli And Monday. I’d say the most regular nights are Monday, Saturday, Wednesday, Tuesday.

Sam And Thursday. We don’t get a lot of sleep. I’d say on average, we get about four hours a night. That’s a good night, four hours. I’ve never had such a long period in my life with so little sleep. At uni, you sleep all day, you sleep all the time. But here, you do just as much partying if not more, stay out later…

Oli … but you don’t have the option to not work.

Sam You have to be up at seven. It’s character-building, it’s good experience to just have to be up.

Oli Skiing in the afternoon really helps. It’s the best way to wake up.

Sam It’s just getting out there, though. When you’re here, and you’re knackered, and you go into your room, and you lie down on your bed, you just want to sleep.

Oli The room downstairs is a bit like a dungeon. Once you’re in there, and there’s no natural light, it’s so easy to just forget that it’s nice and sunny outside, just lose all motivation and go back to bed.

Sam One of us is usually more motivated than the others, so they encourage them along.

Oli It’s strange how much time we must have spent together, as a group. We work together, go out together, we share a bedroom – there’s three of us in the room – almost no time apart. We’re very lucky to not get on each other’s nerves.

Sam So basically, we work lots, and don’t ever sleep!

Warning sign at the start of the Gentianes-Tortin itinerary, Verbier

A job as a chalet boy is not for the faint-hearted

Transfer day hell

Sam On Saturday we wake up at 4.30, the guests leave at 5.30, so we’ve got from then until 11, when the guests arrive, to completely turn the chalet around. We’ve got to get all the sheets changed, all the rooms hoovered, everything has to be immaculate, windows polished, hot tub cleaned, kitchen cleaned, dinner prepped…

Oli …and there needs to be afternoon tea for when they arrive.

Sam At the start of the season, we were doing 19 hours straight.

Oli Now we’re used to it, there’ll generally be a gap when we can have two hours off, from when the guests have arrived and settled in until we have to go back into the kitchen. But some weeks we have self-drives, and they arrive staggered throughout the day, so you’ve got to be ready the whole time. So it’s 19 hours non-stop.

On unusual client requests

Sam We had this one group that took the whole chalet. There were about three couples, and a little kid, and the rest were gay men. Really, really keen drinkers.

Oli They convinced us to serve topless one night. So we came out, serving the meal with our shirts off, and they went wild. It was funny – and we didn’t mind at all.

Sam They had brought speakers and put them in the lounge, and had clubbing tunes on the whole time. They were dancing on the tables, taking photos, us with our tops off…

Oli … and forcing so much drink down our necks.

Sam I was serving that night, every time I came out, someone would pour a quadruple vodka or glass of wine into my mouth. It was such a good night. Then we got the guitar out afterwards, and serenaded them, the two of us…

Oli … a formal concert in the lounge.

Sam But every evening they were in the lounge, just going wild. That week, we were like part of the group. We spent the whole week with them, we went out with them, we drank with them in the evenings. It was like having our friends staying.

  • Sam and Oli are working as part of a team at Mont aux Sources, a 22-bed chalet run by Skiworld (08444 930 430; www.skiworld.ltd.uk).
  • Further general travel information: the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the Verbier tourist office (www.verbier.ch).
  • Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch)