Ice crystals rained down in the air as an Alpine mist blew high above the trees against the snow-capped slopes. My whole world was wrapped in a blanket of cold silence, interrupted only by the soft rustle of ski suits on powder. Ahead, Franck Reynaud’s determined figure swept me through the mist.
I looked around for reference points, but what I saw behind us stopped me – a halo of rainbow light surrounding the sun, embedded in what looked like two sister stars. He was a sun dog, and he was awe-inspiring.
Reynaud just smiled at my bewildered shout and, like this entire ski tour, kept pace with the scenery. The French-Swiss chef and father of three were all in his element, and it wasn’t entirely surprising: “I call this my subway,” he laughed.
He gets on his skis every winter morning at 7 am and sets off from the trailhead in the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana, rising to 2,208 meters, and his restaurant serving Alpine cuisine is the overnight accommodation for ski tours.
We were chasing the 53-year-old ski slopes that took us through fresh snow-covered conifers and up steep south-facing slopes. Destroying the slope provided the kind of challenge my city-dwelling lungs required additional motivation to tackle. Normally, I could only offer them a frozen snack bar in sub-zero temperatures, with the vague promise of ‘get fitter’ next time. But this time there was a greater reward waiting for us far away.
In recent winters, resorts like Crans-Montana have seen a boom in ski tourers seeking the fitness-improving benefits of uphill hikes, even dwarfing the number of skiers climbing the slopes to reach off-piste terrain. This is partly thanks to essential equipment such as touring skis and splitboards that have become much lighter and easier to use.
Crans-Montana itself has built one of the most extensive networks of ready-made ski touring trails in the Alps for skiers to glide safely uphill away from the pistes. There are 15 trails totaling 40km, graded according to fitness level and technical difficulty, and are designed to take you to the pistes via mountain restaurants so you don’t have to take them off the track. I was on one such journey, taking parts of the La Dame, Colorado, and La Violette trails with Michelin-starred chef Franck Reynaud in search of one of the most prized meals in the Alps.
The higher I went, the steeper the terrain and I began to lose confidence in the grip of my split board. Reynaud had some expert advice: “Trust your skills…it’s illogical, but you have to put your whole foot down and resist the urge to lean forward on your toes when you get nervous.”
Reynaud planted each foot, but also used his poles to stabilize himself and used his entire body to smoothly climb the slope. “Take long strides and slide your skis through the snow to save yourself from lifting 2kg at a time – you’ll also cut your ‘steps’ in half,” he told me – rather than pushing your ski touring limits, match your pace to your capacity.
I created a beautiful rhythm as the sun flashed through the fog to reveal a rock fence shimmering orange in the mountain sun, reminding me of towering walls of sun-kissed stone across the Atlantic. “We call this area Colorado!” shouted Reynaud, pointing at a ski pole toward the summit of the ridge, where a Swiss flag fluttered red in the vast blue sky.
When I saw Cabane under the flag, my spirits rose immediately. After two hours of crossing enough terrain to climb half a mile into the sky, the altitude was really starting to kick in, making my legs feel as heavy as wet snow. My appetite is whetted.
We pushed around the rocks one last time and saw Cabane, with its bright white and red shutters and impressive views across the Alps up to Mont Blanc. The wooden interior is unpretentious and comfortable, dominated by a cast-iron cauldron decorated with the cantonal coat of arms of Valais.
Within minutes, Reynaud smoothly transitioned from mountain guide to restaurant business, in and out of the kitchen, while his business partner (and mountain guide) Pierre-Olivier Bagnoud delivered a plate of local smoked meat. Valais boasts 58 grape varieties grown nowhere else in the world, and Reynaud has selected some of the local grapes for his wine – delicately dry and wonderfully refreshing to soothe throats parched by the cold mountain air.
Reynaud runs two fine dining restaurants in Crans-Montana where presentation is everything, but at its base over 2,000m, the focus shifts to using the best local ingredients and creating soulful-heavy dishes. “We prepare meals that bring people together in Cabane,” he told me. “I believe strongly in human cuisine – six of our friends run this place and I personally know all of our suppliers – their stories are in these dishes.”
Often mountain restaurants are an accidental stop—just a place to refuel on a day of skiing—so it was a refreshing change to deliberately make someone the focus of my day and take on a real challenge to reach it. This has made the experience of sitting down to dine with my friends that much richer, enhancing each flavor and deepening my appreciation for the sheer effort required to produce world-class meals above the facility.
Reynaud may come from Marseille, but is dedicated to using local, Swiss ingredients. The fragrant, warming stinging nettle soup I slurped in was picked from the slopes around the building, and the restaurant staff includes a hunter with a local chamois hunting permit.
Immediately the chef, ‘Chuck Rosti’ (real name Fabrice), delivered what proved to be the best cheese fondue I’ve ever tasted. When I was in Switzerland I thought how cliché it was to eat fondue, but it was completely different from the usual white wine-drenched tourist food. “We use two types of cheese, one two months old and the other three months old so that their flavors complement each other perfectly,” our host said.
This is true; The fondue was deliciously nutty and spicy, but never overwhelming, and it was impossible not to jam, enjoying a jolly reward for well-worked muscles. And when we all got together to share food, exchange stories, and bask in the dusk of an invigorating Alpine morning, I realized that this was exactly the point of the best food in the mountains.
I need to know
A three-hour guided ski tour experience with a qualified mountain guide and Alpine food at Cabane des Violettes, including cheese fondue (or Croute au Fromage), two glasses of wine, and a dessert for two, via cransmontana.com.
The best way to reach Crans Montana is to fly with Swiss Air to Geneva, then transfer to Sion by train and take the newly developed (12 minutes and three times per hour) funicular to the resort.
Five-star accommodation can be found at Aida Hotel & Spa starting at CHF 590, where Franck Reynaud runs the Le Partage fine dining restaurant. Find out more about the best accommodation in Crans-Montana here.