*As featured in Morzine Source Magazine

How food allergies changed the face of the chalet chef.

It’s rare to qualify into a profession only to have the parameters of your career keep changing but nowhere is this more apparent than that of the Chalet Chef. Over the last two decades the chef’s role has undergone a total transformation and the goal posts just keep changing as more recently there has been yet another seismic shift. Welcome to the ever-changing world of the chalet chef. 

A Chef’s Life

It used to be so much simpler. Follow a weekly set menu. Create food in bulk. Carb-load guests to an early sleep and keep the evening well-oiled with carafes laden with cheap red wine. Dining experiences in ski chalets used to be the equivalent of pub grub on steroids; a high-altitude feeding frenzy to a bunch of happy skiers grateful for any dinner that didn’t require their post-piste input. 

The Chef’s role just keeps changing.

Quickly the chalet dining experience evolved. Fine dining experiences were expected, as were champagne-soaked evenings and decadent sugar-filled afternoon teas. The GAP year student ‘chefs’, hungry for piste time not kitchen time, were replaced by actual chefs, with legitimate qualifications, and aspirations far removed from fondue and shepherd pies. Guests lolloped home from their annual ski holiday several pounds heavier having eaten the equivalent of 7 Michelin-starred meals in one week. Skiing wasn’t the only extreme sport. 

Now the goal posts have changed again. Just when those Head Chefs got used to catering to the fine dining high life, we, the ever-demanding consumer, started arriving with lots of requests. Armed with doctors’ notes and pallid complexions we explained that we needed something entirely different. Health was the new fashion. Allergy was the new power word and we had food intolerances coming out of our ears. So what does the life of a chalet chef look like now?We decided to ask two of the Alps finest luxury ski chalet companies about this ever-evolving role. 

The Shift 

The Boutique Chalet Company – Nick Lyon Dean, Head Chef 

When I started working in chalets 16 years ago it was very rare for people to have allergies and other dietary requirements. You’d have a few vegetarians and maybe a couple of serious allergies per season. Nowadays if you have a week without any dietary requirements it’s a rarity.

Morgan Jupe – Josh Morgan, Managing Director

Agreed. A few years ago you might be faced with one or two weeks where one person in a group had specific requirements. Years before, even vegetarians weren’t commonplace, which seems absurd looking back. By contract, last winter season I don’t think we had one week without some kind of specific dietary requirement. 

The impact

The Boutique Chalet Company – Nick Lyon Dean, Head Chef 

The change has definitely made work more challenging! But I think for the benefit of everyone. 15 years ago you could produce the same menu week after week and only make alterations for dietary requirements every once in a while. The danger there is that it is quite easy to become bored with that scenario. Now it is much harder to follow the same menu plan one day to the next. Often you have 3 or 4 different dietaries in any given week, so there is a pressure to be much more creative. I think guests can definitely tell when their chef is being stimulated creatively and that makes the experience for them all the more enjoyable. 

Flourishing creatively 

Morgan Jupe – Alexandra Blagdon, Head Chef 

When you work in a restaurant you are always working to set menus so there are far fewer curve balls. In the mountains it is so much more challenging with changing clients and changing needs. Your clients are also dining with you every night for 7 nights. That’s a lot of meals and a lot of requirements! Someone might be diabetic, several might be lactose or gluten intolerant, vegan, vegetarian, and perhaps someone is training for a marathon. You need to create something that works for everyone. 

The Boutique Chalet Company – Nick Lyon Dean, Head Chef 

Having a multitude of dietary requirements definitely provides a catalyst for creativity. For many chefs, the chance to work in a chalet gives them the opportunity to be more creative and imaginative than working in a restaurant ever could. 

The educational learning curve

Morgan Jupe – Alexandra Blagdon, Head Chef 

I was vegetarian for some time, and through that process I did a lot of research into the different food groups, food preparation processes, the chemicals in meats and dairy, and modern farming methods. There is so much to learn.  Dietary requirements push us to understand food much more deeply and also I find we make so much more from fresh. We work to create meals that don’t make people feel excluded. We work to ensure people don’t feel punished due to their allergy or intolerance. So it is both educational and inspirational. Showing clients that good food can taste great gives me a massive sense of achievement. The chef’s role is no longer that of production line, but of constant creator. 

The negatives – speak your truth 

The Boutique Chalet Company – Nick Lyon Dean, Head Chef 

Unfortunately in recent years, what has also changed somewhat, is that people label the foods they are avoiding (for whatever reason) as “allergies” which is not only misleading for chalet staff but can mean legitimate allergies are not taken as seriously as they should be.  I think people should be more honest about why they are not eating certain foods. This in turn will engender a higher level of respect from chefs. If I am told that a guest doesn’t eat a certain food because they are following a particular diet I will always respect that, whereas (as has happened several times) guests who declare themselves as vegetarian then ask for a steak tends to generate a certain amount of cynicism in the industry. Regardless of the reason for the dietary requirement it does provide a great opportunity for us chefs to learn about different allergies and diets, and how to cater for them in new and exciting ways.   Satisfying and exceeding our guests expectations is what creates an enormous amount of job satisfaction and is why we return season after season.

It’s a career choice

Morgan Jupe – Josh Morgan, Managing Director

The shift in the role of the chalet chef to that of constant creator has definitely affected how chefs are recruited. Our chefs come to resort to work, not ski, and indeed most of our chefs last year were not even skiers. They were here for the work and for the level of creativity and challenge it can offer. It’s changed the face of the industry, for the better. 

The future

With more than 150 million Europeans now suffering from chronic allergic diseases, and a prediction that by 2025 half of the entire EU population will be affected, this isn’t a passing fad. The British market for gluten-free products alone is expected to grow to £561m in 2017. For chefs not up to the challenge, the future is bleak. For those at the top of their game, such as Nick Lyon Dean and Alex Blagdon, the future just keeps getting brighter. 

The facts

  • Allergy is now the most common chronic disease in Europe. 
  • In the UK, 1 in 5 Britons now claim to have a food allergy or intolerance, with most stating wheat as the problem. That is an increase of 400 per cent in the past 20 years.
  • More than 170 foods have been reported to cause allergic reactions.
  • There are eight major food allergens – wheat, milk, eggs, peanut, nuts, soy, fish and crustacean shellfish. 
  • There is no cure for food allergy or intolerance and the only way to manage the condition is to observe a strict avoidance diet. 
  • In the UK over 4 million people are now living with diabetes. This represents 1 in every 16 people. 
  • In the USA diabetes rates have nearly doubled in the past 20 years. More than 29 million American adults have diabetes and another 86 million have pre-diabetes. 

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