Will the hills be alive this winter?
We live in strange times. Who, even earlier this year, could have predicted that any Brit holidaying in France or Spain this summer would have to quarantine for two weeks on their return?
And who knows what skiing will look like this winter? Just as Basil Fawlty said "don't mention the war" there's a ripple through the winter holiday industry who, with fingers crossed, say "don't mention Ischgl", which unwittingly became an Alpine coronavirus-spreading hub in the early days of the Covid19 pandemic.
But let's hope not.
And in the spirit of optimism here's a look back at a report I did in 2012 on what it takes to become a chalet host in the Alps.
Last year (2011) the glittering world premiere of the dreadfully predictable movie Chalet Girl, starring Brooke Shields and Bill Nighy, was not held in Leicester Square, Hollywood, or even St Moritz but a shopping centre in west London. So at least it was handy for a cheeky Nando's.
Despite the wafer-thin plot, the film does perhaps have one redeeming feature: it demonstrates that the world of chalet girls – sorry, it's 2012, chalet hosts – isn't all about Arabellas, Belindas and Camillas any more. There may be pockets of the Alps where the brays of a home counties gal may still echo but just as the skies have been Ryan-aired, so too the pistes have been democratised. The next time you go skiing your chalet host may be a man who's served in Afghanistan or a builder's mate who can fix leaking pipes in the morning and jump halfpipes in the afternoon.
I discovered this recently on a week-long course in the French village of Morzine, which aims to teach prospective seasonaires what to expect if they spend a winter in the Alps – everything from dealing with a client's roving hands, icing a carrot cake, whipping up dinner for 18 vegetarians, folding napkins, declogging a hot tub, making the perfect bed and the joys of a morning's hair-plucking in the shower after a 3am tequila session.
There were a group of 13 on the course, average age 20, split fairly evenly between the sexes and from all parts of Britain, as well as Germany and Hungary, and led by ski industry veterans Ralph Chatburn and Rachael Snell, plus Nic Abberley in the kitchen. Two of the trainees had already served in the army in Afghanistan, as had Nic, while others were students, a lifeguard, plumbers, kitchen workers and so on. All were united in a love for snow and looking forward to a winter snowboarding, in between keeping guests happy, while earning around £350 a month for the privilege.
Just like me, whose signature dish is any variation on mince, most on the course didn't know how to cook for themselves let alone prepare dishes for a chalet full of hungry skiers. Mornings were taken up in the kitchen, with Nic showing us how to make easy, tasty cakes using the "yoghurt-pot method": having yoghurt as a base component then using the small, empty pot to measure out other ingredients rather than faff around with scales.
Afterwards, we were taught how to cook an evening meal, with not a spag bol or chilli con carne in sight. There was warm goat's cheese salad with a honey and mustard balsamic syrup, mushroom-stuffed chicken with garlic green beans, broccoli and roast potatoes, and apple and rhubarb crumble with crème anglaise.
Each day teams of two would cook for everyone that night. It was a daunting task for amateurs, especially timing the three courses, but everyone passed with flying colours. Ralph was on hand to drum into everyone the importance of hygiene, from washing hands thoroughly to regularly throwing away sponges and cloths, and how to correctly stock a fridge and store food. Nothing ruins a holiday, and a ski company's bottom line, like clients with dodgy tummies.
I was surprised to discover that the average food budget, including wine, is less than €7 per person per day, so one of our tasks was to go shopping in the local supermarket and create menus as affordably as possible.
In the afternoons Rachael showed us how to keep a chalet clean. "Embrace the toilet bowl," she enthused with glee, scrubbing around the back of the base and on top of the cistern, while warning of potential problem areas that were generally linked to male guests' splashback, particularly after a night out. All clients want to think they're the first person to ever sleep in a room, so absolutely no stray hairs or fingernails was another golden rule. And we made beds, practising our hospital corners till they'd have made the sternest ward nurse beam with pride.
We were also taught hot tub maintenance by Nic. Companies can charge more for a chalet with a Jacuzzi and they're increasingly common. But after guests have soaked tired limbs after a long day on skis, it's the chalet staff who have to clear up the mess when the bubbles die down. "I've witnessed poo, flesh and blood," said the former infantryman who'd seen action in Lashkagar, looking somewhat ashen as he reminisced.
Ralph and Rachael shared anecdotes of several decades of chalet life. In terms of guests who might spell trouble, rugby clubs rang a warning bell, but above them on the bad lads' ranking were groups of firemen, and at the top of the list, prison officers.
As for staff, Ralph noted that the cardinal sin, aside from the instantly sackable offence of stealing, was not getting up in the morning to make guests' breakfasts, a fate that befell several of those on the course after late nights at Dixie's Bar. The solution: at least two alarm clocks.
The intention of the course is to make those who've taken it more attractive to potential employers, several of whom conducted interviews during the week. By the end, everyone attending had secured jobs in the Alps for the winter. Now all they needed was some snow. Who knows, by December maybe even Brooke and Bill may be tucking into a yoghurt-pot lemon drizzle cake, although please, please may it not be during the making of Chalet Girl 2.
Photo credits: Emma Paillex, Boris Misevic & Marin Tulard from Unsplash.com