Sky-high dining

2012-01-27 14:31

 It’s tough at the top, and few chefs are better placed to tell you that than Jean Sulpice, whose two-star restaurant, L’Oxalys, is perched 2?300m up in the French Alps.

When Sulpice, who was born and bred in the region, took over the mountain top eatery in the trendy ski resort of Val Thorens in 2002, aged just 24, he knew he had his work cut out for him.

Val Thorens only has two seasons – buzzing from December to April, and dead the rest of the year – and there was no market for the kind of cuisine Sulpice wanted to offer.

“People in the mountains didn’t do good food,” the fresh-faced 33-year-old, who today runs Europe’s highest Michelin-starred restaurant, says. “You ate raclette and tartiflette.”

These two dishes, which make a virtue out of easily available ingredients – melted cheese, potatoes and cured meats – were standard resort fare.
“There was no such thing as gastronomic food,” Sulpice says.

The isolated site brought obvious challenges, with deliveries of basic ingredients liable to be cancelled because of snow on the roads. The altitude also posed unique challenges, forcing the chef to relearn his trade from scratch.

When you’re that high up, water boils at 90°C instead of 100°C, which means cooking an egg takes twice the time.

“I also had to invent my own type of bread because the first few years it would turn dry as biscuits (because of the low humidity levels),” he says.

Likewise, he had to deal with exploding packaging because of the atmospheric pressure, as well as wine ageing faster than it should.

Though a die-hard mountain lover, one thing Sulpice really struggled with was the thick blanket of snow masking surrounding plant life for six months of the year.

“When you have a blank page in front of your nose every morning, your inspiration is blank too,” he says. “There was no smell, no market, no produce. At Val Thorens, you don’t see spring.”

But that did not stop Sulpice from landing his first Michelin star in 2006, and then a second in 2010. In increasing numbers, the tourists left their cheese and potatoes behind them.
“Today, there is a clientele who come specially to Val Thorens,” he says.

Sulpice’s success story is part of a wider trend that has seen French ski resorts shift their restaurant offer upmarket over the past decade to cater for increasingly wealthy tourists.

The nearby resort of Courchevel – popular with Russian billionaires – counts seven Michelin-starred restaurants, one of the highest concentration of the coveted stars in the world.

But for all that L’Oxalys is now among the Michelin elect, the atmosphere remains relaxed at
the restaurant.

Still in their ski kit and moon boots, vacationers tuck into a shoulder of lamb confit with coriander in a mountain cabin setting with large bay windows opening on to snow-capped peaks.

At the entrance to the restaurant is an impressive collection of Michelin guides, the oldest dating back to 1908, bequeathed to Sulpice by his grandfather, who ran a hotel and restaurant in the Savoie region.

The young chef is perpetuating a family tradition, following in the footsteps of an uncle and a great uncle, the latter also a Michelin-star winner. L’Oxalys remains a family affair. Sulpice’s wife is the sommelier and he supplies meals to his son’s local nursery school.

Sulpice says he discovered a passion for food at the age of 14 after a stint of work experience in a restaurant. He was not yet 19 when he joined the team of star chef Marc Veyrat.

Sulpice, who is on to his fourth cookbook and gives cooking classes at the restaurant, will not speculate on his chances at a third star. “When you have the bug, it’s a natural ambition.”

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