From soup in Peterlee to hors d’oeuvres on the pine tree-covered French Alps, chalet chef Joe Sefton’s cooking is a world away from where it started. Monica Turnbull finds out what’s cooking.
THIS is not a job I ever thought I would be doing,” says hard-working chef Joe Sefton.
The 21-year-old, who is sitting on a balcony overlooking the ski resort of La Villette in the French Alps during our phone interview, began a hospitality course at Peterlee College on a whim, four years ago.
“It was my mother’s idea, really,” he says. “Watching MasterChef was a big thing in our house, and she would have loved to have done something like that.
“Then when I started learning, starting out with nothing and ending up with something that tasted not too bad gave me a buzz.”
Now Joe is running the kitchen in a privately-rented chalet in the French Alps with Scottish girlfriend of two years, Pip Yarwood, 23, running the show front of house.
Joe, who started off by learning how to make “a simple soup” finished college aged 18 and began to push himself to learn new skills, getting his first kitchen job in Hardwick Hall Hotel, Sedgefield.
“It was seven-days-a-week straight,” he said. “It was pretty mad, but I’ve learned a lot from every place I’ve worked.
“When I went to a different place I would take things away from the menu, and I learned things about the cleaning and organising too.”
Now Joe’s food, which he says has “changed drastically” over the last couple of years, takes influences from around the world, from classic British dishes to Asian cuisine.
The chef, who typically cooks six to eight-course meals for chalet guests every night, including canapes, pre-starters and amuse-bouches, says he has driven himself to get where he is at such a young age.
“Pushing myself to see what I can do keeps me going,” he said. “Every job I take I try to move up the hierarchy of the kitchen.
“When I got my own chalet I thought, ‘right, I’ve really got to push myself, and really concentrate on the food’.
“When I left college I didn’t really class myself as anything, and I was a bit taken aback by the kitchen. Now, I’m a chalet chef.”
How did he come to be working in France?
“I was having a look around chefs’ websites,” he said. “I’ve always liked France and thought a chef’s job in France would be good.
“I applied for a job, but didn’t think I would get it.
“I got called down to London and the next thing I was going out to France.”
Joe works for travel company Ski Peak, which employed him in a hotel kitchen in the resort of Vaujany during his first ski season, then under the command of a chalet chef in his second season.
He had to prove himself to the company to acquire his own chalet for the third season.
“When I first applied to work in a chalet I had to send through a sample 10-course menu,” he said.
“They came back and said we don’t usually hire people so young – I was 19 at the time – and I had to tell them I wouldn’t go out and party every night. I went out and worked 16-hour days, but it was amazing and I got really good feedback. So when it came to this season I spoke to Ski Peak and they offered me Chalet Lucette.”
The eight-berth stone and wood chalet, nestled in the hamlet of La Villette, is said to offer some of the best views in the Alps.
Joe and Pip live in their own quarters below the cabin. The community around the resort, he describes as “really close-knit”.
“You would think it would be really hard working together so closely,” he said.
“But we have worked together since we met, and we work really well as a team.”
And Joe, who attended Dene House Community School of Technology in Peterlee, is enjoying being his own boss, cooking up course after course of haute cuisine for holidaymakers.
“I haven’t cooked for anyone famous yet,” he said. “Maybe one day.
“But you do tend to get quite wealthy clientele – if you come out you have to lease the whole chalet – and the food is the selling point.”
One of five siblings, the chef, who worked in a two-star rosette restaurant on the west coast of Scotland last summer, is adapting into alpine life.
“From being in a kitchen at college to sitting on a balcony overlooking the Alps, right now I find myself always wanting to be in the Alps,” he said. “I find it strange being in the UK.”
And though he is hoping to stay on and continue developing his snowboarding skills, he added: “You do have to take it job-by-job, day-by-day, and look to keep moving up a notch.
“And when you move into a new environment, take it as it comes.
“So long as I cook some nice food, I should be all right, I think.”
When the interview ended, I asked Joe what he was doing for the rest of the day.
“It’s one of the few weeks of the season when I haven’t got any guests,” he said.
“I think I’m going to go snowboarding and go across to Chamonix (another village in the Alps) to see some friends.”
As I envisaged sipping a French wine overlooking the pristine, snow-covered Alps, I bent my head back over my desk.