Catherine “Breezy” Breese stepped away from the chilli she was stirring at the hob to face me and folded her arms across her chest to think. “Well, I make six cakes for afternoon tea each week, and there are 16 weeks in a ski season. I’ve worked 20 seasons here so…” I tapped the numbers into the calculator on my phone – 6x16x20. “It’s 1,920. Thats a lot of cake.”
This winter marks the 20th consecutive season Yorkshire-born, former PE teacher Breezy and her partner Al have hosted guests in their 10-person, four-bedroom ski chalet in Chamonix, France, cooking them breakfast, dinner and afternoon tea six days a week, with one day off.
Breezy, who turns 50 this year, first skied aged 16 with her family. She caught the bug and became a chalet host aged 23 with the now defunct Ski Bound. After a first season in Les Deux Alpes in 1992 she was moved to Chamonix, eventually becoming her own boss by starting Ski Breezy in 2000 from a brand new rented chalet where they’re still based.
It was the unpretentiousness of the resort and the opportunities for ski touring away from the pistes that grounded Breezy in Chamonix. She also met Al in here; they got together in 1994. Previously an outdoors instructor, he helped out in the chalet at first, then joined the company full time in 2006. He takes care of the accounts and manages the website, while Breezy does the cooking and manages bookings.
With plenty of local friends, supplemented by their ever-changing and returning guests, the couple – who both speak French – say they have an idyllic social and outdoors lifestyle all year round, spending summers travelling and renovating their barn in the French Pyrenees. In winter they have a cleaner for the chalet to maximise ski time, get really excited on fresh powder days and still ski five days a week.
The other two days are taken up with shopping and guest changeover - most guests arrive on Sunday, which is also deep-clean day. Approximately 75 per cent of bookings are returning clients; “I feel they are ageing with me,” Breezy said. “Over the years, many have become good friends, returning time after time – and we’re honoured to have been invited to dozens of their weddings.”
Over 20 years, naturally times (and guests) have changed. Bookings and payments are taken online rather than by post, clients stay for long weekends or 10 days, as well as the more usual week, and rather than party animals include more dedicated skiers and snowboarders who “want their thighs well fuelled and an early night in preparation for a tough day in the mountains”.
While Breezy and Al have instigated only three chalet rules - “no smoking inside, no outdoor shoes inside and don’t be late for dinner” - they have learnt plenty of lessons over the years. What has been the biggest? “Don't restrict the wine and guests will generally not abuse it,” Breezy told me. “If you hide the wine they will find it!” And she didn’t struggle to find 10 more:
Go with the flow
Breezy’s first ever clients were a group of British Naval officers who jumped naked out of the first floor window of the chalet to run around in the snow every morning. They upset the neighbours, but Breezy wasn’t phased. Smiling widely at the memory she said, “They were such a fun and delightful group.” So much so her chalet co-host at the time married one of them.
During her first season in Chamonix, Breezy had to survive six weeks without an oven, including over the crucial Christmas period. This meant cooking two turkeys in a rival tour operator’s chalet then driving back to her own along bumpy roads while she and a friend each balanced a roasted bird on their lap. Potatoes were roasted in one neighbour’s oven, cake baked in another. “Luckily, the dinner was a success but I had to adapt the chalet’s whole menu to hob cooking for six weeks.” And Breezy laughed as she admitted: “I’ve finished off four ovens in this chalet.”
Hide the eggs
“Most of our guests are lovely and return time after time. However, I have had a couple of bad experiences. One year, a drunken British stag party thought it would be funny to throw all the upstairs furniture outside into the snow, throw 60 eggs at the windows, remove all the inside doors from their hinges and unplug the freezer. I’ll never leave the eggs out on the side again.”
Take payment in advance
Another unpleasant group was led by a “slime ball” who arrived with two extra guests he hadn't booked or paid for. “To make matters worse, every night he bought additional friends back for dinner without asking, simply saying, ‘I’ll sort you out that the end of the week’. Then he refused to pay the invoice, saying it was ‘an unreasonable amount’.” In the end the guest paid only £100, which Breezy reluctantly accepted to close the matter. When he tried to rebook four years later, Breezy, unsurprisingly, declined.
A little luck is helpful
When a client books Breezy’s chalet it would seem invincibility is included in the price. “We’ve been so lucky,” she exclaimed, revealing that, remarkably considering the numbers hosted and their chosen activity, in her 20 years at the chalet only one guest has been seriously injured on the slopes, fracturing a thigh.
Ski Breezy’s most unexpected group was 10 vicars in their 60s on their annual ski trip. “They were lovely guests and I only remembered they were vicars when they said grace before every meal.”
There’s always something to learn
During another memorable week, Ski Breezy hosted a group of blind skiers and their guides, many of whom were skiing for the first time. “One particularly inspiring, totally blind person skied a mogul black run,” Breezy told me, adding that her greatest memories of the group were their enthusiasm for skiing and trying something new, and their complete trust in their seeing guides. “No one ever mentioned being blind as a problem.”
Expect the unexpected
One particularly weird week, Breezy remembers a few of her 10 guests being a little peculiar and other guests in the chalet reported lots of bed hopping. “Then, when cleaning the rooms one morning I found a single carrot standing under the taught bedsheet in the middle of each bed, which had also been moved to face a certain direction.”
Don’t jump to conclusions
After Breezy’s friends bought her some longed-for bacon from the UK, she was fuming to discover it had been eaten in a late night raid, the wrapping dumped in the bin. “Who ate my bacon?” she demanded at breakfast, suspiciously eyeing up a group of lads as the culprits. They all vehemently denied the crime. The life-long vegetarian father and son were never in the frame - except it turned out the son had indulged after a few beers. “His dad was rather surprised,” said Breezy, diplomatically.
Make few rules, but stick to them
“Some people do try to take advantage. Years ago a family group requested dinner for their kids at 5pm and adults at 10pm, expecting me to look after the kids in between. I explained that children’s tea is at around 6pm and adults dinner at 8pm. The children arrived for dinner at 6 without their parents. I binned the whole of the adults three-course dinner at 9pm, set up for breakfast, and I was about to head off when they turned up. I explained that dinner was in the dog. I think they had thought I was joking. They were on time the next day."
Staying in Ski Breezy costs from £575 per person for a week, including six days of catering (breakfast, afternoon tea and three-course evening meal with wine). Shorter or longer stays are also possible. Excludes travel. The nearest airport is Geneva 100km/1 hour 15 minutes drive away. Ski Breezy can also assist with recommendations for transfers, ski lessons and off-piste courses.