A labour of love
A chance meeting in the French Alps led to a whole new life for Francesca and Paul Eyre, as Emma Rawle discovers
An impulse Christmas visit to Morzine in 1992 turned out to be the beginning of a love affair for Francesca Eyre. Little did she imagine that the short working holiday from her busy London life running a catering business would lead to a permanent move to the French Alps, let alone be the start of a whirlwind romance, a new business venture and happy family life.
The 21st anniversary of her initial trip to Morzine has allowed Francesca to reflect on her shift in lifestyle, first recounted in Living France in February 2011. It took just two weeks putting her Cordon Bleu chef skills to good use in a ski chalet for her to fall in love with the mountains, and a further year travelling between London and France to decide to settle in the Alps. Not long after she arrived, she met Paul, who had also decided that Morzine was the perfect place to escape a busy life as a quantity surveyor in the UK.
It was a chance meeting that brought the couple together and turned out to be the start of a new life for both of them. “My brother was working in this French chalet,” remembers Francesca. “They were doing a whole load of maintenance work and they had guests arriving literally within 48 hours. They were really behind with the renovation of the bathroom so Paul went to help them.”
Within a few months of that first meeting, Francesca and Paul were a couple and were already planning Chilly Powder, their successful ski chalet business in Morzine. “It was all quite quick,” reminisces Francesca. “When you do a season out here, even though a season is 17 weeks, it is so full-on that, in a way, time slows down a bit because it’s so busy. So we met in December and got together properly mid-season. We knew straight away that we were going to be together and we set up the business the following year.”
Using their combined professions of chef and quantity surveyor, Francesca and Paul set about developing Chilly Powder, taking advantage of the lack of chalet businesses in Morzine. They began with one five-bedroom chalet in 1995 and within a year had taken on another chalet, but what they really wanted was a large, beautiful house of their own where they could welcome guests as if they were family. So, in 2001, the couple decided to take a gamble and built their own chalet hotel.
Originally, the idea was to buy an old chalet and convert it into the luxury en-suite chalet-style hotel they wanted, but this proved difficult. “All the rules were beginning to change,” explains Francesca. “We were a bit worried about the new fire regulations, and if we didn’t have fire doors and things like that, we would have been shut down. So, Paul, being a quantity surveyor, said ‘Right, let’s build’.”
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It was definitely a gamble, but the couple had a clear idea of what they wanted to do and were determined to see it through. “We took on massive debts when we started the project. At the beginning, everybody said to us, it’s not going to work; you’re not going to be able to pay back the debts you’re incurring, including our French accountant. But we said: ‘It is going to work!’
“It was quite stressful. You can’t build throughout the winter because of the weather, so for the first winter we laid down the foundations and then the snow arrived. We started again in May/June time and had to have it ready by December. So it was a very tight schedule!”
By this time, the couple had had their first child Ben, now 16, and Francesca was pregnant with their second, Eloise, but that didn’t stop them being fully involved with the build. “Paul designed the whole of the building and was here every day giving instructions,” remembers Francesca. “It was exhausting; absolutely exhausting. The week before we opened the chalet, we had no tiles down, we had no stairs and we had a full chalet of guests arriving for Christmas week. The night before, we were up until 4am putting up pictures and fittings. All the guests arrived on the Saturday evening. The boilers weren’t running to full capacity and the kitchen wasn’t working properly. We’d had no snow, and I hadn’t even thought about it. We went to bed and the following morning we woke up to find snow had fallen. It was absolutely fantastic.”
After a stressful beginning, the business is now thriving with guests returning year after year. With chef Francesca in charge, the food they serve has always been of paramount importance, and in the beginning they prepared all the meals personally. “Our unique selling point at that stage was the food. In those days, a chalet would generally provide very basic food and cheap wine. We were the first chalet in Morzine that went upmarket and said: ‘No, actually we’re going to serve nice food and good wine.’”
Now, the couple employ three chefs to cater for up to 80 guests a week, but Francesca still sits down to dinner with their guests every night. Paul can also often be found in the chalet bar chatting with visitors, and their children, Ben, Eloise, 11, and Jamie, nine, help to entertain the younger guests.
Morzine will always hold a special place in Francesca and Paul’s hearts, but it wasn’t just sentiment that persuaded them to build their business here. “We did go and see some other places to compare resorts. For us, it was the fact that Morzine was a small town that offered huge potential,” says Francesca. “British people were very much into the Trois Vallées and they were not interested in coming to Morzine at all. Yet Morzine is in a huge ski area. The Portes du Soleil is one of the largest ski areas in the world, it is an hour and a half from Geneva airport, was undeveloped and there were very few other chalet companies so little competition. It is also a year-round resort.”
Morzine has changed significantly since the Eyres first settled here in the early 1990s when Morzine was a small market town. With increasing visitors holidaying outside the major resorts, towns like Morzine have developed significantly to cater for this influx. There are now more chalet companies like Chilly Powder, as well as more upmarket shops and restaurants.
Another development the Eyres have seen is the growth of summer visitors. “The summers are now getting very busy,” notes Francesca. “Mountain biking is huge here and cycling is now becoming enormous because the Tour de France comes through. It’s an all-year-round resort, and that’s happened since we’ve been here. In the beginning, the summer was a dribble and now, this year we’ve had our biggest summer ever.”
Choosing such a small town to settle in could have made integrating with the local community difficult but having a family has made the process a lot smoother, and Francesca believes that living in an area with few other Brits has made it a lot easier for them to integrate. “It meant we became very involved in the French community. Ben was one of the first children to go to school here who had two British parents,” she says. “Having children means you integrate a lot more easily.” Being such an active outdoor area, sport is a very important part of the culture in Morzine and the Eyre children are heavily involved in that and it has helped them and their parents make local friends.
The couple also found that speaking French was crucial in such a small town. “I don’t understand how people can live out here and not speak the language,” says Francesca, who was already fluent in French before moving to Morzine. Paul, however, didn’t speak the language. “Paul had a French book by the toilet, a French book by the bath, a French book by the bed and in the car, and now his French is technically better than mine!” laughs Francesca. The couple also took the decision to send their children to local school and nursery from an early age to make sure they grew up completely bilingual.
Although there are some downsides to living in a different country, the couple wouldn’t change a thing if they were to do it again. “It can be quite lonely if you’ve got small children and you don’t know anybody, especially during the winter season when everybody works full-time,” says Francesca. “But we don’t have any regrets at all. I look at my children, and they have the most incredible life – they have a huge amount of freedom. Their education is really good and the sports they are able to do here are incredible. I look at all that and think everything we’ve done has definitely been worth it.” LF www.chillypowder.com