Chalet girls (and boys) are shedding their amateur image. By Stephen Wood
The days when a chalet girl's role was to play Barbie to the ski instructor's Action Man are over. Like job seekers and rugby players, chalet girls have a new, professional status. True, the fact that they are now "Chalet Reps" is partly thanks to the influx of males to the profession; but it can't be long before De Montfort University is offering a BA course in Chalet Management for the Leisure Industry. Already, this year, Crystal Holidays has launched a series of chalet cookery courses, and you only have to watch the students labouring intently on the correct procedure for dicing onions to see what damage is being done to the old, amateur principles.

Crystal hires about 300 staff for its chalets every year. It interviews applicants in bulk, up to 45 at a time, in day-long sessions involving group work and role playing. "We can tell very quickly whether they are suitable," says the company's chalets reps manager for the Tarentaise region of France, Rebecca Saxby. "It's a question of personality - how they deal with people, how they present themselves."

The problem is that you need more than an outgoing personality to prepare dinner for 20 people. In the past, Crystal has suggested to applicants who can't cook that they take a course such as those at the Prue Leith or Lucie Clayton schools. But the courses are expensive; and they put more stress on piping-bag skills than is required for high-carbohydrate chalet menus.

So this year Crystal has recommended its own courses. For pounds 190, students got a week's specialised chalet-cookery training, plus tips on other appropriate skills such as toilet cleaning, placating difficult customers, and getting the resort reps to deal with any really tricky problems. Everybody who completed the course - the pass rate was 100 per cent - was guaranteed a job for the season as a chalet rep.

According to my map, Bruton in Somerset, where the five-day courses have been held, is somewhere between 50 and 100 metres above sea level. It didn't seem ideal for a class on "Cake baking at altitude". But although the cake baking was practical, the "altitude" element turned out to be theoretical: cookery tutor Paul Jeffrey explained that the low-pressure mountain environment plays such havoc with cooking temperatures and times that even boiling an egg becomes a matter of trial-and-error (he suggests sacrificing six eggs for experimental purposes).

Basic sea-level principles, however, applied to most of the cookery tuition. The daily agenda for the 25 students, divided into teams of two plus Sam (reduced to a rather peripheral role by being temporarily on crutches), involved producing two dinner menus from Paul Jeffrey's Crystal cookery book. First there was a lecture (how to slice an aubergine, how to caramelise condensed milk by boiling the unopened tin for three hours without getting a sticky mess on the kitchen ceiling), delivered by Paul Jeffrey in a jaunty style probably unfamiliar to the three students opposite me on the big table, fresh from degree courses in international relations, classics and geography.

Then everybody trooped off to the domestic science wing of Bruton School for Girls - on their half-term holiday - to get stuck in, on my visit, to "Milanzano all Parmigeana", salmon steaks and lemon meringue pie.

It was remarkable how seriously the students took their work. I'd guess that Alex (BA, Durham University; heading for a career in financial management) takes most things seriously: he had seen five different ski companies before plumping for Crystal, because of the cookery course and the chalet reps' perks - which include free skis and boots in the resort. But Paul (travel bum: previous engagements at Camp America, and working for a night- club in Ibiza) showed just as much application to his onion-dicing, apparently keen to score as high on cookery as he must have done on personality in his interview. Paul and his cooking mate, Katie, made my lunchtime vegetarian special: it was delicious, certainly the best meal I've ever eaten in a school.

The degree of commitment probably reflected the fact that on this, the last of Crystal's three courses (there will be more next year), the students were potentially only a month away from living in the Alps, making a lot of new friends, and skiing to their hearts' content - a particularly motivating prospect for Paul, who has never skied in his life. The pay, on the other hand, is not much to write home about: pounds 56 per week, of which pounds 11 is held back until the end of the season because, as Rebecca Saxby says, "when they've only got two weeks to go, the snow is getting slushy, and all they've got to look forward to is cleaning up the chalet, they might otherwise be tempted to disappear".

Before I disappeared from Bruton, I ate some good low-altitude cake and watched a role-playing session (part of what Rebecca Saxby calls the "Crystallisation" process) in which the students acted out - and attempted to resolve - difficult moments in a chalet rep's life. The tall, attractive woman who had studied drama (why didn't I get her name?) used her skills to play a bricklayer who had trashed the chalet; Steve, just out of the Marines and, at 31, older than most of the other students, played a rep in a toilet- cleaning dispute with a colleague.

It would be a shame, after my day's research, not to pass on what I learned to those of you who are skiing Crystal this year. So here are a few tips. Don't ask the chalet reps what's for supper: they are taught not to answer, on the grounds that there'll always be someone who says "Oh, I don't like that". Expect boeuf bourguignon when you arrive, because as Paul Jeffrey says it "keeps going all day", which is helpful if there are travel delays. And don't be surprised if your chalet reps seem particularly well-trained this year.