2006-10 France: Gap year – Val D’Isere Ski Season

In the summer before planning on going to medical school I became ill with mononucleosis and was flat-out wiped out for about six weeks. Despite having done “the needful” for my exam scores I failed to submit a “critically important” occupational health form.  Two consequences developed: The first was having to reapply at University and tripping the barrier between those who were pre-and those were post “top up fees” (I’m talking about the historic top-up fees of 2005/6 era university entrance not the now ridiculous £9000 which is applied per year of tuition at university student). Thus my student debt immediately increased from a mere £6000 not accounting for interest to the figure now which is somewhere in the region of £60,000 as a consequence of this tuition fee loan, my normal student loan and a further professional training alone which I’ve had to garner to limp through the final years of university. The second consequence was having a whole year to decide what to do with.

I decided that I’d like to do a “ski season” and also to go travelling. This before the concept of a “gap Yaar” was too overly tainted. My two plans now seem overly classic but the time seemed to be a sensible option both experientially and financially. After a lengthy summer of desultory reclining in France with the sting of my failure to achieve medical school as a consequence of bureaucracy I jumped the ring round hoops of getting the paperwork and reapplying through UCAS. With the lingering effects of mononucleosis still tainting my existence I trundled into autumn.

I was successful in gaining my first ever proper employ as “the pub chef” at the now extinct pub called the Brewery tap in Wimbledon Village. I worked for a chap called Martin – the publician – one of the cycle of rotating owners at the time if I recall correctly. My job was simple I sat up stairs and awaited the orders come in leavering out sandwiches, jacket potatoes and simple stuff initially before it was joined by a real chef. Aventually we ran Sunday roasts together. It was a good précis my next station. On the back of this I secured a job with “Crystal the Finest”, newly rebranded from former “Simply Ski”, a luxury orientated Department of the Crystal enterprise. I was shipped off to France to work for five months as the sous chef a Chalet Lores.

Before I left I indulged in the purchase of a Canon 20D digital SLR camera. This was my first proper camera of my own and this really started my career as a photographer. I bought one lens in addition to the kit lens (18-55mm) a 70 to 300 mm. Altogether I spent nearly £1500 on this first foray into photography. These days the 20 these megapixel value can be found in some of the top and smartphones! Times have certainly changed ladies and gentlemen. Nevertheless it was an astonishing camera for the time.

Arriving in France we underwent training from week in Courchevel before a week of pre-season and then season proper. The experience was initially one of the most intense things I’ve ever done in my life. It was physically and emotionally exhausting….but as time wore on, as my skin grew thicker and my skills increased I began to get a flavour of the season. Skiing every day, drinking every evening and having at least one day week was by no means a bad lifestyle. Being paid albeit a weird minimum wage compensated for food and board (I think it was something like £120 a week) was really a bonus. Furthermore as time wore on and as we ran the show more and more efficiently my head chef and I eventually were able to work in such a way that we could afford ourselves a one-on-one off arrangement.

In total there were six of us working. My head chef and me, three Chalet hosts and a barman… We served five course meals six nights a week to around 30 guests who stayed at the hotel and rotated weekly. Change over days were Saturdays… Tiring and fraught with risk of incoming guests travel delays – leaving us to serve dinner well into the night. Days off were Wednesdays – invariably preceded by a heavy night of drinking and partying before repose. On a rota we were also assigned to cover one day per week stay in the hotel during daylight hours to do cleaning and suchlike.

Thus a typical day ran something along these lines: Wake at 6:30 to begin preparing and cooking breakfast for the guests ready for 8:00. Serving and then dealing with the fallout from breakfast and preparing urgent tasks of the evening’s meal (shopping, prep work and suchlike) and cooking and preparing afternoon tea (a cake everyday), before heading out to the slopes at around c. 11 o’clock. After three or four hours of runaround it would be time to come home to start leaving prep at around four o’clock. Dinner took place at 19:30 and would normally be wrapped up by about 23:00…at which stage mood we would head to the pub for an hour or two before turning around in the snow and resetting the clock for the morrow…..Looking at the schedule now I can’t believe how much we used to drink and how little we used to sleep. I can only think how much my biological clock was accelerated during this period, not to mention the aggressive skiing without suncream in the spring months!

My ski season was a seminal or perhaps formative experience in terms of working hard and really it was my first proper job. I’m glad experience and it was a genuine privilege to be allowed ski for five months in one of the finest results of the world, Val D’Isere. I have many fun stories and also several poignant and painful memories of growing up and of being disappointed.

These days I don’t cook very much but the skills learned during his five months set me right for a lifetime of competence in the kitchen. It certainly one of those incredibly useful life skills that I’m grateful to have been able to master and such a convincing fashion.

As regards the photos…. I’ll try to dissect them into smaller stories at some later stage but for now please enjoy selection of my favourites from the season.

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