Arnie Wilson writes:
The chef Heston Blumenthal is the perfect example of someone whose career has driven him to great success, but also to all the stress which goes with it too – and for whom skiing has become the source of great release, joy and happiness.
Having skied with him three times I have watched him pound the slopes in Austria, Switzerland and Wyoming with great panache and ever-growing skill.
Having literally exhausted himself building up his repertoire and reputation, for many years, Heston had little or no time at all for the mountains. But as fame arrived, in spite of the extra pressures that brought with it, he was determined to re-kindle his love of skiing. It had been almost 20 years since he last skied - when he was in his 20s.
When he finally found himself back in the mountains, the impact was profound. “I’d almost forgotten how thrilling skiing was” he remembers. “I couldn’t believe it had been so long since I had experienced that wonderful adrenalin rush and joie de vivre. It’s so much removed from being a chef that I find it hugely relaxing - and exciting!
“I was about 14 when I went on a school ski trip to Passo Tonale, Italy. The mountains were incredible but the memory that still stays with me was this horrible dish we had each night - pasta with tomato out of a tin. The next time I went was in my late teens, to a tiny village in the Swiss Alps. I remember thinking I was going flying down the slope – but then I looked down at the snow and realised I was crawling. So slowly in fact, that I nearly fell over!”
Over the years he’s had more than his share of non skiing-related injuries. Slaving away over many a hot stove, often for ridiculously long hours, has taken its toll, as well as coping with many accidents and near misses in the kitchen.
“When I opened the Fat Duck, all exercise stopped” he says.
“Working 120 hours a week, it was brutal. Standing working, my back took a battering from the various angles. And I was only getting 15 to 20 hours’ sleep a week.”
I first skied with Heston back in 2005, in Ischgl, Austria. That’s when he had his light-bulb moment of realising how passionate he was about the sport and how much he missed it.
“Within moments of jumping on the first drag lift, my skis crunching on the crisp snow, with the sharpness of the air - I was grinning like a Cheshire cat” he says. “I’ve been hooked since then!”
“For me, it’s a form of meditation. My mind is entirely focused on the task in hand and I’m fully aware of each stress and strain in my body, the balance and speed needed on the slope. I’m never thinking about what I did yesterday or worrying about tomorrow – I am absolutely in the moment. It’s a type of kinetic release that’s rare in everyday life. I love skiing anywhere really.”
Since that period of self “re-discovery” back in 2005, Blumenthal has skied as often as his busy lifestyle permits – most recently in Jackson Hole, Wyoming – his first skiing in the USA, when I was hard pressed to keep up with him. (I mean it!) One winter he even managed four visits to the mountains.
“One day I’d love to ski in the Andes” he says, “but I love Courmayeur and Zermatt. And Jackson Hole too now I’ve made my first visit. Jackson is made up of 2500 acres of rugged North American terrain, and I love them all!” he says.
“In Europe, I love the wild nightlife in Zermatt and the towering view of the Matterhorn makes this resort a joy to visit throughout the year. In Courmayeur, Italy, the food is so good they should change the name to ‘Gourmayeur’! The people are extremely hospitable too.”
In his earlier skiing “comeback” years after almost two decades of “ski starvation” when he was building up the Blumenthal/Fat Duck brand (and improving astronaut Tim Peake’s meals on the International Space Station) he got some valuable tuition during the annual City Ski Championships from the celebrated former British downhill racer Konrad Bartelski.
But Heston enjoys the après ski scene too. “That’s half the fun!” he says. “When I find myself in a mountain restaurant, I’m not looking for Michelin stars. What I’m after is stripped back, modest food with big flavours and a local wine. I often go to Courmayeur and the Aosta Valley has one of the best lunchtime and après-ski food in the world - fresh tomato bruschetta, ash potatoes, sausage tagliatelle. The beauty is that these dishes are light enough not to get in the way of afternoon and evening runs.
“As a general rule Italian and Swiss resorts stand out because of their mountain food: Verbier especially. In Crans-Montana, the hotel Chetzeron is also magical because it has an impeccable selection of restaurants while boasting uninterrupted views down the Rhône Valley, so I would recommend taking a trip there. But a good meal is as much about the food as it is about where exactly you’re enjoying it.”
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