Stephen Wood: Fine dining hits the heady heights

The man who skis all day

My lunch started with carrot and coriander fritters with mozzarella and sweet lime dressing. The main was a vegetable filo parcel with sweet potato purée and it was followed by a roasted pear and lime syllabub. It's the best meal I've eaten in the offices of a tour operator. Actually, it's the only meal I've eaten in the offices of a tour operator.

The meal was exceptional in other respects. The office of the Hotelplan UK brands – Inghams, Ski Total and Esprit Ski – in Godalming, Surrey, has a kitchen but no dining room in which to eat the meals cooked there. And among those who have cooked in the kitchen there was one who managed to cut himself five times while chopping a single carrot. Less surprising, given that all the brands in the building are primarily ski-holiday companies, is that should you want to eat a meal like the one I enjoyed, you will have to climb 1,000 metres above sea level or travel a long way north.

For ski chalet staff, two basic attributes are essential. They must be outgoing and engaging enough to act as hosts to the guests, and they must be able to prepare and serve a meal at the beginning and end of each skiing day. In the interview process for the 700 chalet staff that the three Hotelplan brands need per season, judging the applicants' suitability for the hosting role isn't difficult. But their culinary skills? That's more tricky.

The traditional method involved applicants bringing to the interview something they had cooked. There was always the worry that their home cooking might have amounted to little more than watching mummy remove a cake from its packaging and place it in a Tupperware box. Another problem was that the interviewer could get little sense of how the interviewee would perform under pressure. "There's no need to ask applicants to produce a four-course meal because 15-20 minutes in the kitchen would reveal whether they could cook or not," says Andy Perrin, who as Group CEO of Hotelplan UK is in charge of the three brands. When they moved into their Godalming premises this year, it provided an opportunity. "It's completely changed the hiring experience," he says. "Some candidates with the right qualities for hosting can freeze in the kitchen; and there have been others, uncommunicative in the interview, whose lights have come on when they've been given an apron."

The "freezers" could have caused chaos at Christmas and in the New Year when the chalets are full of guests who have paid high-season rates and expect high-quality service. So those candidates are invited to improve their skills by attending the £499 cookery course which takes place the week before the regular chalet-staff training in the Alps, where the altitude famously increases the time it takes to boil an egg. The latter group of applicants are particularly useful for the company's larger, 14-16-bed properties in which the two chalet staff ideally have complementary roles, one hosting and the other cooking.

Pressure cooking

The man in charge of the kitchen is Mark Vinall, who trained with Marco Pierre White and taught cookery at Eton College. He claims to be able to pick out the promising candidates from the way they chop an onion; but the main challenge is to create two courses from ingredients presented on a plastic tray. "The best cooks create the simplest dishes with minimum ingredients," Vinall says. "The worst never really decide what to make and present something that they say is not what they intended." A big part of the exercise is seeing how candidates work under pressure. "We had one who walked out and another who fainted," Vinall says. "And when things have caught fire, we've had people just say, 'It's burning', and do nothing."

Those who emerge safely from the interview and test-kitchen session will, come December, find themselves cooking the six evening meals planned by Chamonix head chef David Craig and the five area chefs, whose job is to maintain standards in the resort. The menus are identical for each chalet, with variations for dietary needs or supply problems: sea bream was unavailable in Switzerland last year, for example, and replaced by an Asian freshwater fish, pangasius.

Among the new menu items for 2012/13 are the fritters I tasted at Godalming. Like skiers and boarders, they'll go down well in the mountains.

Stephen Wood is executive editor of Condé Nast Traveller magazine

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Product Development

    £26000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Product Development departm...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

    £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

    Recruitment Genius: Developer

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Estates Contracts & Leases Manager

    £30000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Estates Team of this group ...

    Day In a Page

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory