If you have ever longed for the chance to jump off the treadmill and start a fresh, new way of life with your loved ones – and let’s face it we’ve all been there – then read on. Owners of GourmetSki, Richard and Fiona Lambert, made that leap of faith over a decade ago, and now run a successful luxury eco chalet business in the popular ski resort of Morzine in France’s stunning Haute Savoie.
“We got a little bit greedy,” admits Richard of the couple’s eventual move from Reigate, in London’s commuter belt to the picturesque French Alps, which are cocooned in a fairytale blanket of winter snow when I visit the family at Chalet Gourmet, their home in the village of Montriond, quietly tucked just a short hop down the valley from the bustling ski resort of Morzine.
“We wanted to buy a ramshackle, tiny little cottage in Normandy to have as a bolthole from London for the weekend. It was all the rage to do it and it was quite cheap. And what we ended up with was something miles away from Normandy, so the transportation was slightly difficult, and we fell in love with the most enormous renovation project. And, after about six months working on this renovation project, we realised that actually it was too big to use as a holiday home, so we had to move there. Then along came Ollie.” Ollie, now eleven, is happily wandering in and out of the room as we chat, all ears, curious to know what, if anything, is being said about him.
“It was an accident actually,” muses Fiona on the couple’s purchase of their first French property in the Charente, “we bought the house in the May and I got pregnant in the July, so it was very close, but we had the most amazing time. It was fun!
“We were a lot younger then,” Richard continues, “and it was a lot less risk than an enormous chalet business like this, and the cost of work on the other side of France, where it was, was miniscule. So actually, we were just playing with it. But we did decide, when Ollie came along, that I wanted to finish work in London, because I was working all the hours God sends and I wanted to spend more time with Ollie. So actually, weirdly, the reason that we’re here is because I wanted to spend more time with my son. Which I do. And the beautiful thing for me that this whole thing has enabled, is that although we work very hard, I spend all day with him and we’re always together. And I think for a father that’s quite different. With Fiona going off and working [at her job as BA cabin crew] it is different set up.”
The couple have certainly bucked convention in more ways than one. The division of childcare is at least fifty-fifty and possibly falls more to Richard than Fiona outside of the ski season, when she spends much of her time flying.
“It works for us,” says Fiona. “Nearly everyone who’s crew on a BA long-haul flight is also a parent, but a lot of people rely on their families to help them with childcare. We haven’t got that but the fact that we run our own business means that we can work everything around my BA schedule. So if BA tells me I’ve got to go to Singapore for nine days, we can work around it. That’s when Richard has to be the key parent. But at least we’ve got control in that respect. If we were still in England, with Richard working in advertising, we would need to have childcare in place.
“I think Ollie has benefited enormously from us doing this”, Richard reflects, lighting up as his son enters the room. It is wonderful to see the way that family life for the Lamberts is lived so contentedly and apparently seamlessly alongside the running of their successful business, and how tightly woven the tapestry of the family is as a result of both parent’s day to day participation.
So, I wonder, how did the family get all the way from their erstwhile bolthole in the Charente to their current home and business empire in the Alps? “We really enjoyed having the house over there.” explains Richard, “We loved it so much that we created two holiday cottages out of it and ran them as a business for a couple of seasons. We hosted a couple of weddings, including our own, and decided that was what we wanted to do. The seasons there were very short and the rental income that we could get was tiny, so we went ‘what can we do that’s open nearly all year round?’ and up pops the idea of a ski resort.”
Fiona beams at the mention of the move, although it was a huge upheaval, the decision has evidently paved the way for a family life that works in harmony with both the chalet business and Fiona’s work, as well as the couple’s love of snowboarding and the outdoor lifestyle. “I actually did a ski season here twenty years ago,” Fiona tells me, “but that’s not the reason we chose Morzine. In fact, my brother was married to a girl whose parents had a place about ten minutes down the road from Morzine, and her parents were lovely, and they invited us to use their holiday home for a week’s break. So, a week before we went, we got on the internet and started looking at property websites. At that point it was just looking, you know. We lined up loads of appointments in that week and it was as simple as that. We jump head first into things. It’s instinct. And that’s what happened.” She positively glows at the recollection of their whirlwind move, and I wonder whether the couple may have followed their hearts to the Alps, rather than their business heads, despite the fact that they were also moving in order to drive more income to the business.
Richard doesn’t fully agree. “We did use our business heads, I mean, we both have degrees in the subject and I’ve been a professional chef as well, so the move was combining our skills – Fiona’s customer service and my marketing, business and cheffing background – mix all these together and you’ve got the perfect recipe. It’s a blend of all the right skills. But at the same time,” he concedes, “we were building a future for our family, to continue the lifestyle we had on the other side of France and to enable us to be together more. The transfer time to the airport and the flights to Geneva… it was much easier, which made a huge difference for Fiona’s work, and it allowed me to stay here and concentrate on the chalet here, rather than running off to work every three months and getting help in to look after Ollie.”
Everything fell into place very quickly: the day after viewing the property in Montriond that would eventually become Chalet Gourmet, Richard and Fiona put an offer in on the run down former farmhouse, and completed on the sale just four months later.
“We make decisions very quickly”, smiles Richard. There is genuine harmony between the two of them on this level, in that they share the same ideas about what they want and expect from life, they go after it, and they do not hesitate to grab it with both hands. “We’ve never fought on decisions about what we want to do. We fight about a lot of other things, but not on this, which is quite insane because we make insane decisions!”
So how did they get from buying the property to creating a thriving business of three luxurious chalets? Was this what they envisaged when they signed the papers?
“Yes!” They both say together. “We designed it, we knew what we wanted,” Fiona states emphatically, “but… this is a bit embarrassing…”
“Don’t admit to that!” Richard holds his head in his hands, chuckling, “You think it’s really funny. I think it’s embarrassing.”
“We’ve never actually stayed in a catered chalet before. We’ve no idea what a catered chalet is really like. We just did our own thing. Our aim was to create what our idea of the perfect holiday would be and we set about creating that experience. We’ve tweaked it over the years and the whole thing has evolved over time as we’ve had a bit more money to make things better.”
It’s an intuition and a passion that clearly works, but what about the pressures involved in being the public face of a brand and business that involves so much intense interaction with your clientele? How to cope with those pressures?
“You have to be outgoing and like socialising to enjoy this business,” Richard nods. “The thing that drives me is that I am very proud and believe in what we do. We don’t cut corners. I’m over confident and I think it shows. Probably cocky at times! I love what we do, we try very hard and we truly try to make people’s weeks wonderful. Yes, it’s hard work but we’ve never had a moment where we go ‘I can’t do it anymore’. I think that, when you wake up with deep feeling in your stomach, like I used to on my daily commute to London, that’s when you stop. When that day comes I think we’ll stop, but I can’t foresee that for years.”
Fiona agrees, “I can remember someone saying that to me about flying when I was doing my training course, ‘You’ll know when it’s time to hang your jacket up,’ and eighteen years of flying later, here I am! We’ve met a number of people who are working in the same business as us, but GourmetSki is our business. We’re not working for anyone else. If it goes wrong we’re to pay, you know, we’re the ones who have to deal with it, so we are committed and I think unless you’ve got that attitude you’re not going to succeed. although, that said, my work as cabin crew is my escape, it’s my holiday time. When I’m on a flight and the rest of the crew are complaining, I’m like ‘No, believe me, this is a walk in the park!’ It’s exhausting, but I get to check into a hotel and I’ve got at least 24 hours of comfortable hotel, sleep, TV, internet, books, shopping if I want to, have a pedicure or massage, you know, it’s great! And it helps our marriage too!” Richard and Fiona both burst out laughing. “Am I allowed to say that?” “Yea, of course you are.” “Separation is so important, you know. We’re not together. It rejuvenates! We would kill each other were it not for my time away.”
I wonder whether the family, all experienced snowboarders, get much opportunity to take advantage of their proximity to the slopes which are, of course, the main draw card for their business, and whether they still feel able to appreciate living in such a magnificent environment. “Yes,” Richard enthuses, you see the mountains and you see the beauty and it makes you relax. Honestly, we don’t get out on the slopes very often. We actually live here for the summer. The winter is the reason that the business is here and we throw ourselves at the business. In the summer, we let our hair down, relax and enjoy the mountains. We love hiking and road biking, so in winter the skiing and snowboarding is just an added bonus, if we can do it. It’s not the reason why we’re here and we don’t care if we don’t get up on the mountain that often. It’s not the driving force.”
“It would clash horribly” insists Fiona. “There are plenty of people who are running businesses here because they love skiing, but how can you run a business and ski all day? It doesn’t work.”
It’s not all work though, and the day after our interview, with just a week to go until the end of the ski season, things are starting to quieten down a little and Richard and Fiona do manage to sneak out of their chalet duties for just a couple of hours to join my five year-old daughter, Violet, and I on the mountain at the Rock the Pistes music festival. Stages are dotted around the slopes of the Portes du Soleil ski area and we get to watch Babyshambles in the snow before skiing down the mountain, the only way to access these otherwise free events. It certainly appears to be a beautiful and exciting place to call home.
“Work is pretty much all-encompassing though,” Richard admits. ”Family life sometimes has to take a back seat in the winter. We obviously try to reverse that in the summer, but winter is for working and family life just has to fit in with that. Ollie has always been in this environment, so he doesn’t know anything else and he kind of understands that we have to work very hard in the winter, which isn’t ideal but it is the way it is. We condense our Christmas day. So we have a very special early morning and then we go off and work and then we reconvene in the evening. We do still have the traditional Christmas, we still have Christmas dinner with crackers, we play board games, we open presents, we have that whole Christmas morning, but after that is about twelve hours of work. It works though. Of course, we would love to have a Christmas when we weren’t working, but unfortunately the nature of the business is that Christmas is one of our key weeks and that’s just the way it is. We’ve forged out our own traditions together as a family.”
On a typical week day, Richard and Fiona take it in turns to walk Ollie to school in the village and walk Indie, the family dog. Back at the chalet it’s down to the business of looking after guests, organising breakfast, lifts to the slopes, preparing the delicious homemade afternoon tea, collecting guests from the slopes or apres ski, collecting Ollie from school. “ Now that we’ve got our own separate apartment it’s made a huge difference family life,” admits Fiona. “We’ve got our own two bathrooms, three bedrooms and a kitchen, which is just great.”
“In the evening we always try to sit down.” Richard confesses, “I’m a firm believer in sitting at the kitchen table for dinner. We do that every night. Then, afterwards, depending on work commitments, we will do something together as a family, although in the winter that is very rare. Ollie will either be with his friends, doing his homework or, unfortunately, he spends far too much time on his computer and listening to music. I will not lie, it is an issue and I think it’s the same for every family that walks through these doors.”
Richard and Fiona welcome hundreds of families through their chalet doors, so was it a priority for them to create a family friendly environment? “It has been a conscious decision to move towards family holidays because we know, as a family ourselves, how you can make it easier. So we’ve put things in place. We’ve sound-proofed the games room and put loads of kid-friendly things in, so when the kids wake up at 6.30 in the morning you can come down here, shut the door and they can run about and make a racket and everyone else stays asleep. So yes, it’s for the benefit of the kids but the way we’ve designed it is also to the benefit of any adult groups and any adults who are here too. So the parents can relax, knowing the kids aren’t waking everyone else up. And we can as well. It’s paramount to us that guests feel that they are being taken care of. Fiona and I are split between several chalets, so we don’t have as much one on one time with all of our guests now, but we do ensure that all of our staff love children. Our chef at The Nest is former nanny. Part of the reason she got the job was her ability with children, and she is fantastic. It’s an important part of what we do.
“We wanted to be the pinnacle of the chalet business in Morzine and for the first few years we had a product that virtually no one else had, and a fair amount of good will and good referrals from both companies here and from our own guests, to qualify that. As time goes on we’re not the new kid in town anymore, and others have come in and are challenging us, which is wonderful because it keeps us on our toes and it’s making us raise our game. It’s good because it prevents us from resting on our laurels and allows us to always be improving the quality of our product. We try to evolve as a business. The market has changed. There’s a very foodie market now, and we are still catering to that, but that’s not all we’re about, it’s not all about the evening meal anymore. We have different strengths to our brand. One of them is the quality of the accommodation, which we believe is one of the highest, certainly in terms of specification and size, and the other one is the way we run the business, in terms of the eco side of the business, which is really important to us, something that no one else here is really tapping into.
“I spent six months working with the World Wide Fund for Nature, and one of my roles involved looking at climate change and chemicals in the home, so having come from that, I felt very strongly about building a very green business, and I’m passionate about minimising our impact on the mountains. We’ve got one of the only chalets with eco heating and eco policies and the new chalet (Chalet du Chene) is even better than this one. And that is kind of where the brand is going, moving away slightly from the cuisine side, and moving more towards environmental ethics in terms of the way that we run the business: Good quality food and eco-friendly chalets. We need to call ourselves Gourmet GreenSki!”
Chalet Gourmet was developed from the start as an eco-friendly business, using locally sourced materials and a biomass boiler, whilst Chalet du Chene, which opened just in time for the 2014/15 ski season, goes even further. “ The new chalet has got all of those benefits, plus is also has solar heating. We’ve created it to be south-facing so it acts as a heat tank and the heating will be absolutely minimal The slates are all reclaimed, the wood is all natural and comes from France, it’s all FSC. The windows are all very high quality and keep the heat in, or the heat out in summer. We’ve got a grey water tank, so we’re using as little water as possible. It’s all part of our plan for the future to just have these two chalets, Chalet Gourmet and Chalet du Chene, and for them to have as little an impact on the mountains as possible. It’s something that we really believe in, we don’t want to live in a house that is, on the one hand, costing us a fortune, but also abusing the planet. We will downscale slightly in the future, as and when we can. We will continue to run the business and I think that one day we’ll just run one chalet, just the two of us, so that we can have a bit more time.
“I think we’ll be here in France for another ten or fifteen years. Whether we’ll stay here for the rest of our lives and live happily ever after, I don’t know. We love France, we love the area. I can’t think of anywhere else I want to be right now. I think running a business and family life is never going to be easy. And it’s not standard. But if you’re the right people you can make it work. It’s not ideal but, on the flipside, if we weren’t doing this then I would see a lot less of my family, so it’s worked for us, but I can understand that it wouldn’t work for many. We’re incredibly driven people. We can work incredibly hard and still find time for family life as well.”
Note: Richard and Fiona have since sold Chalet Gourmet, and now operate GourmetSki from their stunning, newly constructed luxury eco-chalet, Chalet Du Chene. Visit http://www.gourmetski.com/