In my last post, I described how a group of young Brits survived the first 3 weeks of the 1985/86 winter season working as waiters in a Swiss ski hotel. It was a scary baptism of fire but by the end of it we had become reasonably competent waiters. Slowly fear left our lives and we started to enjoy ourselves.
One of my favourite shifts was early-morning room service. I have fond memories of doing the room-service shift with my friend Simon Bradley, a cheery bloke with a mischievous grin and dry sense of humour. We would start at 6:30 preparing the breakfasts on large trays which were to be delivered between 7 and 9. Most of the time it was just a simple breakfast with a couple of bread rolls and some jam. In some cases there would be scrambled or fried eggs (which I think we had to prepare) or muesli and cornflakes. We became quite good at loading trays to the brim and carrying them on one shoulder, so we had a hand free to call the lift and open doors. If there was a do not disturb sign on the door, we would leave the tray outside and ring the bell. Otherwise, we would ring the bell and awkwardly set the breakfast down hoping for a tip – which we hardly ever got. Delivering breakfast was quite uneventful.
It was also our job to collect the trays once the breakfast had been eaten. As we were keen to get this done as quickly as possible (the slopes were waiting) we would start to collect early. By the time we got to the end of the season, some guests were hardly given any time before we were bashing at the door asking if they had finished. More often than not, the rooms were empty and the guests had left to ski. If they had left anything uneaten on the plates, we would usually hoover it up. The hotel food that we were given was bland and poor (usually leftovers) so we were always on the lookout for a free snack. A fresh roll with jam was a decent snack. If we were really lucky, some people would leave their scrambled egg and bacon half-eaten for us to enjoy. I remember one occasion where I was clearing trays with Simon when we knocked on the door, received no answer and entered with our pass-key. It was late season and the sun was shining on the balcony. And sure enough there were two trays set up outside which had hardly been touched. We glanced at each other and immediately sat down and each started tucking into a lovely bacon and egg breakfast. The coffee was no longer piping hot, but better than nothing. Unfortunately, our idyllic breakfast was brought to a rapid halt when the couple whose balcony we were on emerged giggling from their bathroom. Simon and I froze for an awkward moment as they hadn’t noticed us just yet. But it didn’t take long for them to notice two shadows on the balcony through the net curtains. They were Americans and were quite good-humoured about the whole episode. I don’t even think we ever got found out. We counted our blessings that they weren’t Parisians or Swiss-Germans: two groups that were universally disliked by the hotel staff for their arrogance and bad manners. I’m not sure it was true but I do remember a group of Swiss-German doctors that were particularly unpleasant.
Another occasional duty we had was to set up the pâtisserie stand at 4pm on certain days of the week. The stand was in the reception area, one floor above the kitchens and restaurants. There was only ever one item on the menu, and we were responsible for setting up and running the cash-box. I quite liked this because there was a chance for us to make tips. I was probably only ever on pâtisserie duty 3 or 4 times, but still managed to mess up spectacularly on a couple of those occasions. First time around we had to make fresh waffles. After breakfast, the grumpy French Patissier, showed us where the batter was and how to work the waffle-iron. We were thinking about going skiing so didn’t pay attention. At 3:30 we returned from the slopes, got changed and set up our stall: batter, waffle-iron and a few toppings. The problem was we didn’t know how hot to set the waffle-iron or how much batter to use, so the first few were a complete disaster. At first, we had it set too low and were using too little batter. We kept opening the machine as the queue grew but were only producing half-size soggy things which we dumped in the bin. I cranked it up to 10, cleaned up the area and asked people to sit down and told them I’d bring them their waffles. It seemed easier without an audience. Finally, I poured a full ladle of batter onto the smoking iron. There was a great hissing, bubbling noise, so I closed the iron quickly as the excess batter formed a blackened ring around the edges. I waited a few seconds and then made my next mistake – opening the waffle-iron. Smoke billowed out – first under the wooden roof of our stand but, soon after ,spreading out into the reception area. I tried to get things under control and threw away the burnt blob which I had to lever out with a wooden spatula. Meanwhile, my partner in crime, Simon, was holding the electric sliding doors open to let the smoke out and the icy wind in. Eventually, we cleared the air, got the machine dialed in and managed to get something resembling a waffle to the paying customers. One elderly gentleman (another American) took pity on me and gave me a 5 franc tip – by far the most generous tip I got all season.
Surprisingly, I was not banned from patisserie-duty but given another chance. Another chance to redeem myself, or make an almighty mess. You can probably guess how it turned out. On the menu this time were 6 delicate puff-pasty “mille feuilles” cakes – each mounted on a long wooden board with slits in to show where to cut. The patissier gave us specific instructions not to use the dumb waiter to transport the mille feuilles from the kitchen to reception. We should carry one at a time carefully up the stairs. As was the custom, we ignored this advice and found out that the wooden boards just fit into the dumb waiter which would make our job a lot easier. I loaded 3 cakes into the dumb waiter while John, another of my British colleagues, waited in reception to swiftly unload so that there was little chance of anyone seeing us not carrying them up the stairs. I hit the button to send the load up, feeling quite pleased with our work-saving scheme. My smugness was soon replaced by horror as I heard the sound of sliding, grating and crashing emanating from the dumb-waiter. John shouted down that the load hadn’t made it to the top. The wooden boards were just too long to fit in the shaft. I should have noticed this, as when I positioned the boards on the dumb-waiter one end was hanging over the edge. On the way up the ends had caught on the narrowing shaft, been levered upwards, flattening the cakes and then sliding down the shaft leaving a trail of pastry and vanilla cream. Somehow we got it all cleaned up and must have somehow made plausible excuses for only making half the expected turnover from 6 cakes. Another narrow escape.
Apart from the occasional mishap, we weren’t bad employees. For most of the season we just did our shifts, skied all day, messed around a bit in the kitchen and became good friends. We were paid 100 francs a week with room and full-board thrown in. That gave us enough money to spend on the local “Cardinal” beer and have a couple of nights out a week at our favourite bar or the strangely famous night club “New Sam” – which was part owned by the racing driver Patrick Tambay. Now and then there would be a room party which drew all the nationalities together – the Yugoslavs (cleaners), the Portuguese (waiters and cleaners), the Brits (waiters and receptionists), the Italians (waiters) and the French (waiters only – the chefs never attended). We all got along, and I was sorry to leave at the end of the season. I don’t know if it was a life-changing experience but it did teach me that working hard is much easier if you like the people you work with. We were sad to part at the end of the season, swore to keep in touch and kept it up for a couple of years. I am grateful that I still know Simon Bradley, who now lives just down the road in Lausanne, so the memories can be refreshed once in a while.