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  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


Fresh and smoked salmon paté with dill and cucumber dressing

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

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

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

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

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


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.