The dining room is bright and quiet, the gray-uniformed servers moving with cultured efficiency among us. It is lunchtime at Le Chabichou in the French Alps. I am supposed to be skiing the slopes of Courchevel, but fate has placed me here instead, to my resonant satisfaction.
The heavy snowfall has lifted, revealing perfect, sheet-white slopes, the vista crowned by Mont Blanc, in the far distance. With my American wife, German-American son and two British cousins, I have come at just the right moment to Courchevel, which, together with the rest of the Three Valleys, is the largest ski area in Europe. On winter break from first grade in Manhattan, our son is in ski school, learning to ski parallel in the French method. Slowed by a petulant sciatic nerve, I was unable to keep up today with the adults in our group and lost sight of them at a broad fork on a high slope. I had a 50 percent chance of getting it right and turned left. A quick phone call revealed that I bet wrong: the others had turned right. I was too far away to join them any time soon. Fortunately, this is France, and it was time for lunch.
I deposited the skis and boots at L'Atelier, the chic little sports shop that had rented them to me, changed into jeans and presented myself to the tourist office, asking for the name of a good restaurant. The helpful woman suggested there was a nice bistro near Chabichou. I did not know the place she recommended, but Chabichou is the two-star Michelin restaurant founded and run by Michel Rochedy, the man who brought gourmet cooking to this corner of the Alps. I clarified: thank you for suggesting the bistro next to Chabichou, but was it possible to get into the real thing? She gave it a go and, smiling broadly, reported that I was in luck. Stumbling along, I was there in 15 minutes.
And so the bread now arrives, escorted by two different kinds of butter. I order the lunch special. One amuse-bouche and then another builds a hopeful anticipation for the appetizer. What particularly intrigues me, however, is an egg-shaped portion of spinach and carrot sorbet. I have a Proustian flashback to a memorable night in Paris, at L'Arpege, the three-Michelin star vegetable-centered restaurant of Alain Passard. As any parent (including myself) who has demanded "Eat your vegetables" knows, getting veggies to taste not only good but intriguing is no small feat, but the sorbet, with its sweet and tangy notes, offers a surprise introduction to my meal. What follows as the official appetizer is a soft-boiled egg with asparagus and caviar, in a Hollandaise sauce, paired by the sommelier with a gentle and fragrant Meursault (Burgundy) Chardonnay by Domaine Ballot-Millot (2014). Everything is aromatic and fresh, and the disparate elements work together like the instruments in a chamber orchestra.
Courchevel is actually comprised of five villages: Saint Bon, Courchevel Le Praz, Courchevel Village, Courchevel Moriond, and Courchevel. The villages are sometimes referenced by their altitude in meters above sea level, with plain Courchevel (aka Courchevel 1850) being the highest and therefore the most desirable. There are 19 five-star hotels in the region, including three "palais" super-luxury properties. Consider, in contrast, that the famously exclusive St. Moritz region of Switzerland makes do with nine such properties.
The combined Three Valleys area offers miles of easy and intermediate slopes -- and more than a few challenging runs for experts. In a week of trying in great conditions, we could not ski it all, but we could not have done as much as we did were it not for Dominique Chambard, one of the area's approximately 1,000 instructors. Dominique introduced us to the lifts, which, like the train system of France, utilize the hub and spoke system -- here to move people from base areas with gondolas and chairs radiating toward the outlying runs. Now 59, he recalled his youth, which was not long after skiing came to this corner of the Alps, immediately following World War II; only a short time before, what is now Courchevel 1850 was little more than a summer pasture for cows resident below. (They still graze here, incubating the milk for Beaufort cheese.) A masterful teacher, Dominique watched my wife and me ski nearly the whole day until he told each of us exactly what we needed to change to perform better -- and he was spot on.
Courchevel has embraced casual chic. When, two days after our arrival, we had a few hours of spa time at the small and exclusive K2 hotel -- a palais indeed -- it was blond and serene. She masterfully went to work on my tattered left side -- on the shoulder and arm I re-injured in a fall, and on the track of my sciatic nerve from back down to calf.
In the pool, our son splashed everywhere, swimming under the artificial waterfall and making the island in the middle (named Saint-Barthelemy, after our previous resort destination), a meeting point for adventures with Daddy. We crowded into the outdoor hot tub, which we found contained inside a large wooden barrel. The hotel was obviously built with discretion in mind; the hottest pop star could stay there and likely not attract attention, which was probably the intention.
n n n
I think back on all that with fondness, grateful that Chabichou is also casual, given my arrival in jeans. For the main course today, I receive John Dory on a risotto of shellfish within a sea-scented emulsion. It is paired with a local wine, an organic white by Domaine des Ardoisieres (Quartz, 2014). I am thereby moved gently from land to sea, and as with all great gourmet experiences, no one element intruded or exiled any of the others. It was seafood that did not try to announce itself as "this is your fish course, sir" -- simply as a culinary combination that worked. My waiter, David, who is from Montreal, shifts effortlessly into English from the French he has been using and says he would be interested in my opinion about the dessert now to follow.
n n n
What the K2 spa area is for the high end, the new and huge Aquamotion facility is for the rest of us. An indoor water park with a large family area with four pools and a water slide, it also offers a similar "adult swim" set of facilities upstairs for when you want to plunge and sauna without the children. My son introduces me to the waterslide. He arrives at the bottom and taunts me on the way down -- where I end up flat on my bottom.
On Wednesday night, a great crowd gathers at the base of the 1850 lifts. As if through the blackened dark sky itself, but actually atop the slope directly above, we make out a lighted serpentine procession in the distance. It grows longer and continues down a winding path directly in front of us -- dozens of torch-bearing ski instructors. There follows a fireworks demonstration put on by a Dutch team that, with its fusion of ground-hugging and high-flying pyrotechnics, is the most elegant and exhilarating we can remember. At one point, the crowd is alight as if in sunshine. We can smell the explosives, and we watch debris flutter over our heads like falling leaves.
n n n
Almond cake with a raspberry sorbet that has prominent notes of red pepper -- a sweet and spicy finish that works. Fine cuisine is at its best when it delivers the unexpected, and I have had lovely surprises throughout at Chabichou. I conclude with espresso as flavorful as a coffee harvest and a selection of chocolate and macaron petit fours. My culinary indulgence has cost a mere 60 euros plus the price of the beverages. I thank David, reconnect briefly with my wife and cousins at Le Chalet de Pierres, the slope-side restaurant they have chosen for their own lunch, and make it to the ski school in time to stand among the other parents as our kids slide in from the day's lessons.
On our last full day, I make what has become my regular morning visit to the ski pass office, to buy what we believe are the right tickets for the day -- for either the local lifts or for the entire region. All week, I have been very good at making the wrong decision and, on one occasion, losing the passes entirely. My guardian angel has been Joyce, a bilingual ticket agent who has rescued me from some blunder. As she slides her tray out for the last time, with today's passes, I deposit and slide back toward her a bar of Lindt chocolate.
Joyce has time on her hands today because a whiteout has kept almost everyone from the mountains except my wife and me. Visibility extends no farther than the next slope marker and only if you are watching for it. We slide off-piste but manage with effort to lumber back on course. As the gauze lifts slowly, we make it back to ski school, there to see our son win his badge for learning to ski parallel. The French method -- immersive, disciplined and unsentimental -- has worked brilliantly, so my wife discovers when she takes him out that afternoon. She later reports that he skis as fast as she. The only glitch comes at the chairlift, which he claims to have mastered. As the great chair swings around and then toward them, he volunteers, "I lied." Mom's athletic twist and hoist saves the day.
That evening, we celebrate the birthday of one of our cousins over dinner and a bottle of Ruinart Champagne. The next morning, a taxi arrives before dawn and takes us to the Chambery train station -- where a team in red jackets greets us with the news of a rail strike that will have us stuck until noon. I have just enough French, however, to interpret an announcement that a special bus has been put on, leaving in 10 minutes.
The bus carries us to Geneva. The two gateway airports to Courchevel are in Lyon and Geneva, but due to load factors and other airline algorithm mysteries, Swiss International has flown us through Zurich for half the price it had wanted to transit through Geneva. So a train ride to Zurich now awaits, but Swiss trains are a pleasure, and we all enjoy the experience.
Because of the need for land travel, it is difficult to return to the United States or most other destinations outside Europe the same day you leave Courchevel. We therefore spend the night in the Park Hyatt Zurich. The hotel's staff is used to strange people arriving with a caravan of ski bags. Early the next afternoon, following a leisurely departure for the airport, which is close to town, we board Swiss International for the flight home.
ow to end a great trip to the French Alps? With Swiss ice cream, served as we near our destination. As we enjoy that, we commiserate as a family that, Courchevel being so large and having so much to experience, we never came close to doing all we wanted. Reason enough to come back as soon as the first snows of a new season fall.