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

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Day In a Page

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup