On top of the world
A straightforward business decision to open a high-altitude restaurant in the Alps has become a labour of love for the Venning family, as Deborah Curtis discovers
On weekdays in the winter, Gary Venning takes his little granddaughters to school and nursery by skidoo. Home is a high-altitude restaurant on the slopes above Les Gets in the Haute-Savoie department, which the Vennings bought six years ago as a renovation project.
After several decades working as entrepreneurial property developers in the UK, Gary and his wife Teresa were ready for a new challenge. Setting their sights on France, they found an empty, almost derelict, restaurant and set about bringing it back to life.
“We had a property in Spain that we’d owned for 10 years and Gary decided that he would prefer to sell up and get something in France that could operate both as a summer and a winter retreat,” Teresa explains.
With his eye for a property’s potential, Gary had previously noted an empty restaurant near the top of Mont Chéry and, on returning to France to search for suitable projects, made enquiries about it. The restaurant was situated at 1,750m and enjoyed stunning views out over the Portes du Soleil ski area towards the majestic Mont Blanc. When the Vennings first learned about it, the property had been empty for more than a decade.
“It was for sale,” Teresa says. “The French owners had been waiting to see if their children wanted to take it on but they didn’t. It had been empty for 15 years and was just a shell. Nobody wanted it so, having just sold a property, we were able to buy it for cash.”
The logistics of renovating the place were daunting, and the price tag was eye-watering but the Vennings were undeterred and together with their two sons, Gareth and Ross, and daughters-in-law Lianne and Sarah, they bought both the mountain restaurant, which they renamed La Grande Ourse, and a house in Les Gets. They all moved out to live in the Alps in 2006.
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They quickly got stuck into the renovations and, thanks to a varied skill set within the family, were able to do much of the work themselves.
“We knew we could do everything in-house because that’s how we’ve structured it before,” Teresa explains. “My husband’s a plumber, our youngest son is a very gifted chef and electrician, and our eldest son is great at the construction: the decking, cement, the plastering… I’m the one who generally does the business plan so between us we have all the skills.”
Nevertheless, the work required to bring the old building back up to scratch was not for the faint-hearted.
“The actual walls were standing but it was very much a concrete bunker,” Teresa remembers. “The whole of the terrace had to be taken down and when you’re a mile up a mountain, which this project is, all your concrete has to be brought in by helicopter.
“We’ve done every single aspect apart from some of the stonework ourselves; every single window has been replaced. We ordered the windows and because they were late, we fitted them in a blizzard. Some didn’t fit so we had to alter the openings with the cutters and there was snow and cement wash blowing through in a gale.
“You do all the weather checks but we were caught twice… once majorly. We had the helicopter booked and the three cement lorries all parked at the meeting point when unexpected and unforecast fog descended; in the end €4,000 of concrete was dumped.
“There are pitfalls that you can’t factor in: in France, every single aspect has to be taken into consideration and your figures have to have that structure in them so there is provision for it.”
They reopened the restaurant in stages, enticing hungry skiers to stop with a lunchtime menu that initially included paninis, sandwiches, chips and, more distinctively, Cornish pasties, and has now evolved into an Italian restaurant serving pizza and pasta, all expertly cooked by their Italian chef.
“There may be 49 altitude restaurants in the whole of the region but what we did to try and get ourselves noticed at the beginning were things that would get people talking… bringing in pasties because we’re from Cornwall and calling ourselves Cornish rather than English,” Teresa remembers. “Now the lower restaurant is Italian with everything homemade – the bread, the pasta. It’s very popular.”
The middle floor has been transformed into an à la carte restaurant with talented chef Ross Venning at the helm.
Teresa lists some of the culinary highlights from the à la carte menu, including “lobster, scallops, tartiflette, shoulders of lamb, pork filet in cream with prunes, duck with potatoes dauphinoise, gourmet burgers. On Sundays we spit roast a whole hog inside the main restaurant.
“We do an amazing five-course candlelight dinner on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings. We bought a 20-seater cabin for our piste bully [snow vehicle] and we bring people up to the restaurant when the lifts are shut at night. We can take up to 40 and it’s been very successful. It’s fine dining, rather exquisite.”
When they began their Alpine adventure, the plan was always to review after five years to decide on their next move; a decision which has always been made for firm financial reasons. However, the arrival over the intervening years of grandchildren Alyshia, six, Shaniah and Lucia, both four, and Safiya, 18 months, not to mention the family’s collective love of life in the mountains, has brought a new dimension into deliberations.
“We had a family meeting after five years to decide whether or not we would sell,” says Teresa. “Having several businesses in the UK and having lots of assets but being income short, we then had to make an emotive decision because we’ve all come to love it.
“Gary and I have certainly decided now that we will sell the flats, houses and factories in England. We will keep a small flat in the UK and spend our lives here but we wouldn’t have done that until we’d had a minimum of five years here, with the ability to go back. We made provision for both scenarios and we were very careful to enable ourselves and our families to jump both ways.
“If we had wanted to go back to England, we had our feet still in that camp and it’s only now that Ross and Sarah, and Gareth and Lianne are becoming settled and their children too that we’ve decided to stay.”
So the Vennings have decided to live in the mountains for the foreseeable future and, to augment their winter restaurant business, they’ve set up www.alpinepods.com, a business which installs innovatively designed log cabins, pods and spheres made out of a combination of natural and modern materials in gardens, on golf courses, by fishing lakes, and in caravan parks and campsites – anywhere people want to make the most of outdoor living.
It is this life outdoors which has exerted a strong pull on the family, and the locals, impressed by their resourcefulness and self-sufficiency, have warmly welcomed them into their mountain community.
“The village swells to 16,000 in the winter but during the quiet period there are 600-800 people here. The French will accept anybody if they see them working hard,” says Teresa. “If you come in and try and just put €2 million down on a chalet and think they will accept you, the world would freeze over before they will but because they’ve seen the whole family doing some aspect of the work, they like that. The other thing they like is that, on the odd occasion when mountain life has been difficult or even dangerous, we have shown that we can get ourselves out of it.
“We are probably not a typical family. When we are talking to people about things we do that appear normal to us, another person looks on and says: ‘Oh my goodness. What on earth are you doing?’ The French say the same about Gary and I living on the mountain: ‘You are so wacky.’ The English will say: ‘Aren’t you brave?’”
But for now at least, Mont Chéry has got firmly under their skin and they are happy to call it home for a good while yet. LF