Lawyer to chef: My hobby inspired me to open a crêperie in French Alps

‘I had what I now see as a bit of a midlife crisis!’ says American Rachel Howard

Rachel Howard and husband Dominik Daul
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I have spent most of my career as a lawyer in my native US, but my husband Dominik Daul, 54, is German and we also lived in Germany for six years.

During that time, I worked in the Middle East as a lawyer, travelling back and forth. After three years, however, I realised I was spending too much time away from home and our four children, aged eight, 10, 12 and 16 at the time.

So I took a few years away from the office and decided to do a Cordon Bleu culinary course in Paris in 2012 – just for fun. I have always loved cooking, and I suppose it had been a dream at the back of my mind that I might one day own a restaurant – although I never really thought it would happen.

The course was daunting as I did not speak any French, although I had a few lessons beforehand. The lectures were in English, which was helpful, but the recipes were in French and often the chefs spoke no English at all. It was intimidating, but amazing at the same time.

Read more: Why Brittany is a crêpe hotspot

After this, it became a running discussion at the dinner table – what would we name the restaurant we might one day own? It was not serious, but sometimes when you direct your imagination and energy into something, you keep walking down that path.

Start of new life in Europe

In 2014, we moved back to the US. My mum had been diagnosed with cancer, and I wanted to be close to her. When she died in 2017, I was devastated and also exhausted. On top of that, work was not going well – I had taken a promotion to a new agency and it did not suit me at all.

I had what I now see as a bit of a midlife crisis! I was six years from retirement and Dominik and I had already talked about moving to Europe once I had finished work. Given everything that happened, we decided to seize the moment and have an adventure.

We are mountain people and settled on France and a ski station in the Alps close to the Trois Vallées area, called Pralognan-la-Vanoise.

Running a crêperie in the mountains

We found a small crêperie called Les P’tits Montagnards for sale and decided to go for it. We sold our house in the US, spent a fortune on a shipping container, and moved to France in May 2018. We completed the purchase of the restaurant in June and somehow managed to open on July 1.

When we moved over, we saw this as a ‘working retirement’. One of the reasons for choosing a restaurant in this area was that it is a six-month season, giving us half the year to relax – at least in theory.

We have a good skillset between us. Dominik has worked in IT for years, but his original qualification was in hospitality management and he speaks fluent French, so we felt up for the challenge.

It has been harder work than I imagined. This kind of small restaurant is designed to be run by a couple – it is not financially viable to take on staff.

Our days are busy – in high season, we are at the restaurant from 8am and do not get home until 11pm. Then it is bedtime at midnight to start all over again the next day – six days a week.

That said, I love working with my hands and the fact that my job is so immediate and tactile.

We are bringing in more American dishes, so we do chilli, steak, ribs and burgers alongside crêpes now – all of which are very popular.

It is much more physically demanding than being a lawyer, but there is something wonderful about preparing delicious meals.

Read more: La Chandeleur: tomorrow is France’s national crêpe day

The downsides of my new job include the heat. I am at the crêpe griddle all the time and the pan runs at 270C, so it is pretty hot. It also takes more brain power than you might imagine.

I can have six different things cooking at once – it is a serious mental challenge in terms of looking at the tickets on the board and figuring out what you need to start on next.

New challenges

The pandemic has been tough for us.

We only just managed to hold on to the restaurant, and have not seen family for two years. If I had known that was coming, we probably would not have made the move.

But things are starting up again. We live in a beautiful setting and, although the dream has had its hiccups, we are still really happy and looking forward to a brighter future.

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