Chefs, Cars and Skiing

This week, we're talking to travel guru, Amin Momen, whose London-based company Momentum Ski organises bespoke holidays.

Hosted ByPeter & Felice
Chefs, Cars and Skiing

Amin in the mountains

Peter: Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers, and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.

Felice We want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.

Peter This week, we’re talking to travel guru Amin Momen, whose London-based company Momentum Ski organises bespoke holidays. And these days, more importantly, corporate and personal events for anyone who wants to involve themselves on the most exclusive level in Amin’s three great life passions – that’s mountains, world class gastronomy, and sports cars. So Amin Momen, welcome to the show. It’s wonderful to have you on. I’ve known you a long time, and we’re always amazed by just how many celebrities you know and how you created this empire of celebrity entertainment.

Felice And how did it all begin?

Amin My first ski experience was in Iran – this is pre-revolutionary Iran – when I was eight, where I would ski in the local hills. My father would drop me off on his way to the Caspian Sea and leave me with an instructor first thing in the morning. I was wearing my sister’s clothes which were ten times bigger, her old leather boots.

Anyway, he would leave me there with an instructor all day, a sandwich in my jacket, and he’ll pick me up about three, four in the afternoon. By then I was completely frozen. But I absolutely loved it, loved it because I just wanted to slide down the mountain. That was really my happiest time being in the mountains. Even the drive to the Caspian Sea, driving through mountains and those mountain passes, was my fondest memories.

I had absolutely no plans to get involved in this business. I was sent to the UK to have a proper education. Again, this is all pre-revolution, so I was at school here and I would spend my Christmas holidays skiing in Iran, Easter over there, and summers on the Caspian Sea.

And then in ‘79, as you know Peter, things turned upside down. And when I graduated here, I just didn’t know what to do in terms of a career. I was a little bit lost. I could speak Italian because I was born in Italy and I started applying to lots of companies thinking I would get a job because I spoke Italian. And that wasn’t quite the case.

The ‘80s was really quite a miserable place to be here in the UK. So I just thought, you know what, I’ve always wanted to live in mountains, I’ve always wanted to ski, so why don’t apply to some of the ski travel companies, some of the chalet operators. And I sent my CV and I was employed by a company called Bladon Lines who were one of the leading chalet operators at the time. I worked with them as a ski guide, and the idea was just to do one ski season, get it out of my system and then come back and get a proper job.

Peter That’s what a lot of people say.

Chefs, Cars and Skiing

Left to right: Amin, Frank Gardner, Chemmy Alcott. Photo: © Momentum Ski

Amin After that first ski season, I came back and I was offered a job by a language school – company car, salary and everything that every graduate was looking for. I just thought, you know what, that was such an amazing experience, I might just go back and do one more. Meanwhile, also, there were no other career opportunities, things were upside down in Iran.

So I went back, did a second ski season, and I was offered a full time job at Bladon Lines. So I had absolutely no plans to end up in the ski industry, but very soon I became Alpine manager, product manager, and I started looking after all the ski resorts – from the southern Alps to Austria. So France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria. And I started building up a great knowledge of all the ski resorts, all the hotels, the mountains, nightclubs, restaurants, you name it. It was a great time.

In 1995, I was on a press trip – probably with you guys, I can’t remember, but this fax came through saying, ‘We’ve sold to Inghams. We’re a big player in the business.’ I looked at the fax, I thought, ok, this is interesting. Now it’s the big boys. So I spent a year whilst the merger was happening, and I soon realised that actually, you know, this is really not for me and I should be doing my own thing. So I thought, actually it’s the right time as the company was organising itself probably is a good time for me to step away and start organising tailor made ski trips. That’s when I thought that there was a gap in the market for organising something a bit more bespoke.

Peter You obviously you concentrate on Italy because that’s your language and where you spend quite a lot of your life.

Amin So yes, I was I was based in Italy and during the four years when I was the Alpine manager, I was based in Courmayeur. So it kind of became my second home. When I set up Momentum. Also, my business partner was Italian and I think we became Italophiles, but we were seen as the Italian specialists, even though we operated all across Europe…the fact that I was living in Courmayeur, so we had credible contacts.

Peter But you quickly moved on from skiing to widen your portfolio.

Amin Yes, so again, none of this was planned. I knew that there was a gap in the market for tailor made trips, but the market soon changed with the internet – airlines, you could book your own flights, you could soon book the hotel. I think anyone can organise a ski trip, but I don’t think anyone can actually create a lifetime memory, and that’s what I really wanted to do. I really wanted every client to have a similar experience as a press trip in a way, have that ultimate, much deeper experience on the holidays rather than just flight, transfers and hotel…the restaurants even ‘drink this bottle of wine with this particular meal,’ so the knowledge that I’ve built over those years.

I thought the only way to develop this business to promote our tailor made side of the business is to organise events, because events bring people together. So how do I promote at the time Momentum Ski, which was a tailor made tour operator? So what if I organise events, it brings people together and, through the events, I can then promote what I do in a way…my bread and butter.

One of the first things that I organised was a ski race. At the time, it was the European Mobile Challenge, which was a freestyle ski race where the pros would come pick up the checks…a professional ski race, but it was an incredible race to watch. What we did was open up the race to the holidaymakers that day, so they could actually ski down with the same infrastructure, the music, the commentators, etcetera.

And I soon realised that the thrill that this was creating for people is what I should be doing, just to create that once in a lifetime experience. It’s almost saying to you, ‘If you go to the Monaco Grand Prix, you’ve seen it now drive your own car, your Golf, around the racetrack and just feel the same thrill, but with the same commentators, the audience, etcetera’.

So the idea of creating that lifetime memory experience was what I realised I should be doing. And the first event I organised was the City Ski Championships, which was a ski race for London’s financial community, because I was very much targeting the heart of the London businesses.

Just organically through that, I started getting requests for ski weekends. The ski weekends were from a lot of corporates, banks, property, insurance and all those then they started developing and becoming more and more sophisticated. They wanted everything organised from their food to their guides to absolutely every detail. So we just listened and evolve with the way the market was also changing. So really the tailor made side of the business, is still there, but it’s really an offshoot of our corporate events and our groups. But really the DNA has always been for me, the events and creating something that brings like-minded people together.

Peter What did you first do outside of skiing…getting away from skiing?

Amin First we started organising some softer adventure for our clients on mountains in the Alps, treks, biking, rafting, low-impact trips, which again we started organising for our corporate clients as well. A summer in the Alps typically was hard to sell because everyone wanted sunshine, they wanted a swimming-pool, they wanted a beach. Ten, fifteen years ago, it was a much harder sell than it is now. So I think people now understand that the mountains are quite special and just the fresh air and having a little bit more of an active lifestyle rather than just lying on a beach doing nothing.

Chefs, Cars and Skiing

Amin, left, with Chemmy Alcott and Damon Hill. Photo: © Momentum Ski

So that was really the first time we started doing non-ski activities and that very soon evolved. After the ski championships, I organised the City Tennis Championships, so we organised that initially in Portugal, in Barcelona, where there’s a big tennis centre and lots of golf courses, but actually we do that back in the UK now. I think people enjoy it more if they want to play tennis, they like to play tennis and have an incredible time, but be home at the same time rather than travel abroad.

Felice Where does that take place in the UK?

Amin At the Hurlingham Club in London, which is a very exclusive private members club. We are also looking at padel, which is one of the biggest growing sports at the moment. It’s very likely I will do that in Europe where we will combine it with sunshine and tennis and other activities. And I think that’s going to be more geared towards individual clients. But again, bringing people who share the same passion, so you like tennis, you bring tennis players together, you like padel, you bring padel players together.

Peter But very quickly, you started through work, I guess, meeting some pretty famous people. And persuading them to get involved as well. I can remember years ago now at least both, we went to Silverstone with Ferrari and you.

Felice That was 14 years ago. It popped up on my Facebook memories page.

Peter That’s a tremendous day of corporate entertainment on the day preceding the Grand British Grand Prix.

Amin That’s right.

Peter Tell us about tell us about how you organise something like that?

Amin So I started being in this business…it was 1986 when I started. Throughout all these years, I’ve just been very, very lucky to meet people from all walks of life. If you count the number of guests that I’ve met over these years, journalists, tourist office directors, bus drivers, butchers, you name it, as well as celebrities. Particularly what you’re asking, what you’re referring to, was because Ferrari and Ducati used to do their press launch in Madonna di Campiglio in the Italian Dolomites. Schumacher would be there, all the Ferrari drivers.

There’s even a Schumacher run, if you remember, Peter, in Madonna and Montezemolo, who was the chairman of Ferrari, Bernie Ecclestone, they would all be at Madonna di Campiglio for a thank you and a launch. They were very interested in my business, so they invited me along. So, indirectly, by organising that event, they wanted me tend to send clients to Madonna di Campiglio – a very similar way of thinking in a way. So I went along to Madonna and I met the organisers, and that’s where I was invited then to come to Silverstone, and I asked you guys to join me.

Peter And of course you are Italian, half Italian, half Iranian. Also in those days you were Ferrari owner yourself?

Amin Well, I was before the kids were born. I did buy a Mondial T, which is a two-plus-two with two little seats in the back, and I thought I was being very clever buying the only Ferrari with four seats back in the ‘80s, but soon realised that once you have a buggy and everything else that goes with the children, nothing fits in there. So it sat in the garage for a while and then I just thought. ‘Time to sell it and buy an estate car.’ That was the biggest mistake in my life because, had I kept it, I would have made an absolute fortune because all the ‘80s cars are now really sought after.

Peter And about the same time you met some pretty famous chefs, because food and wine are never far from your thoughts. Tell us about that?

Amin So a good friend that I’ve met in the Alps in my early seasons, one of them introduced me to fine dining and food. He was a rep in Meribel. He then became a restaurant manager in London, and we stayed in touch. In fact, I was the best man at his wedding. But he would just say, ‘Look, there’s a new restaurant opening in London. There’s a chef called Marco Pierre White.’

I was going: ‘Who? Sorry, What? Oh, Marco Pierre White. Let’s go. Let’s go now. Have lunch there.’ So we’re going to have lunch there. He introduced me to Marco Pierre White, and I went, ‘OK, great.’

About two years later, he rang me up saying, ‘Look, I need a big favour, there’s another chef who has had a problem with his car hire at Geneva Airport in Switzerland.’ I said, ‘Oh, did he book through us?’ He said, ‘No, no, no. But if you can help him, that’d be great. His name is Gordon Ramsay.’ I went ‘Ok, fine, put him in touch. Ask him to give me a call.’

So Gordon rings me up and says, ‘Look, I had a problem with my car. They haven’t refunded me. There was this, there was that, no one’s answering me.’ I said, ‘OK, leave it with me. I’ll see what I can do.’ So I called them and I said, ‘Look, this is a friend of a friend. Can you look into this? And they said, ‘So sorry, Mr Momen, we’ll have a full refund for your friend and an upgrade next time.’

So I did this and he said, ‘Listen, if you ever want to come and eat in my restaurant, just let me know.’ Which I did. And then I soon realised, my God, this is actually a very, very big name. And he soon became a very big name. And just by that little favour, he invited me to his restaurant.

Anyway, just through that passion for food and credible dining experience, I met Heston Blumenthal, who knew this friend of mine. We had a mutual, very good friend and asked Heston if that was that was his first time skiing. He said, ‘No, I gave up skiing a long time ago since I was building my own business.’ By the way, for those who don’t know, Heston Blumenthal owns the Fat Duck and he was voted the best chef in the world a few years ago. So he has three Michelin stars and is one of the godfathers, really, of food. Anyway, so I said, ‘Well, why don’t you come and can I get you to come and connect with the mountains again?’ Having spent ten, 15 years in the kitchen building his business.

Chefs, Cars and Skiing

Amin (centre, in green jacket) with chefs Claude Bosi, Marcus Wareing, Jason Atherton, Sat Bains. Photo: © Momentum Ski

And he did, and I really was very happy to introduce him to my world and my love of the mountains. He absolutely loved it. He really reconnected with skiing and he started bringing his family back. And we spent many ski holidays together. It was one lunchtime where we were sitting in a mountain restaurant in Courmayeur with a beautiful view of the valley, one bottle of white, two bottles of red, a beautiful bowl of pasta, and he said, ‘Why don’t we share this experience with your clients and share this incredible experience of simple food, great wines in an incredible location? So we said, ‘Fine, let’s organise an event together.’

We started the Mountain Gourmet Ski Experience, and it was simply born out of me introducing him to my world. I was so into his world of food and wine, but I was very keen to see what he thought of places that I loved. And that’s how it all started. So then we invited Marcus Wareing who’s now a master chef, Jason Atherton, all the top British chefs came along. But also at the same time, I think the destinations realised that if you bring celebrity chefs to their destination, it attracts attention because people will think, ‘Oh, why are they going there? The food must be good.’ So it’s a very indirect endorsement also for the destination. So the destination became also very interested. And again, by organising that event, I started bringing people together – passion for food and wine.

Felice So what happens on a Mountain Gourmet Ski Experience?

Amin We drag these chefs out of the snazzy kitchens in Knightsbridge and wherever they are, and we ask them to cook in two mountain refuges. So it’s bringing a bit of a taste of London, or wherever they’re based, into the Alps, but they also collaborate with a local chef. So typically they will just do two courses each for about 60 guests. It’s an incredible experience. It’s a one-off because none of them really work together in a kitchen. It’s like saying Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix as a one off, one-off gig.

Peter Of course, they find themselves cooking on two gas rings connected to a bottle of butane gas.

Amin Yes. It’s very hard to recreate what they do in London, but it is a unique experience. And also more importantly for me, it’s great to see these chefs enjoy the Alps and relax, because they don’t do that. They’re not the beach type. And I think this is why it’s been great to have a lot of celebrities come to ski with me or to share some of the experiences, because they truly appreciate the mountains. It’s a great leveller, but also they appreciate and they relax and have an amazing time…and they get away from their day to day hectic lives really. I think the mountains have been really a great connection. I’d say the same passion that we’ve all had.

Peter And cars and motor racing are never far from your thoughts, You’ve just come back from Monaco. What have you been doing there?

Chefs, Cars and Skiing

Grand Tour to Monaco. Photo: © Momentum Ski

Amin So I met Damon Hill, the former Formula 1 World champion and son of Graham Hill, who also won the Indianapolis, Le Mans, and he was a Formula 1 World Champion. He also, having spent all his life in the track, I asked him to come out and ski and experience the mountains. So we spent quite a bit of time together. Similarly, he said, ‘Why don’t we organise something together where we can bring people who enjoy roads driving?’ He also came to the gourmet ski experience.

He said, ‘Why don’t we do a gourmet drive? So what I can certainly do…the gourmet part of it is quite easy for me. We can put together an amazing itinerary and you can do the driving bit, which is your world.’ So we created this thing called the Grand Tour and the first one was to Provence in France, where we drove through some iconic rally roads and mountain passes, stayed in incredible hotels. On the last day we hired a racetrack – the first one was Paul Ricard where the Grand Prix was, and then Damon would take our clients for a hot lap in a Ford GT, which is the most one of the most amazing cars, and also a performance drive where his son, Josh Hill, would also do some coaching as well.

Two weeks ago we went towards Monaco again, a four-day trip starting in Grasse, which is in France – it’s the perfume capital of the world. From there we did some of the Monte Carlo rally routes into the Alps, crossed towards Italy, towards Barolo country, Alba, some iconic routes finished in the Italian Riviera, and then our clients actually went to the Monaco Grand Prix. They went on one of the yachts to watch it. So they also experienced a bit of the Formula 1. The Formula 1 part…the race is not really the raison d’être, but it’s the full three, four days before the Grand Prix. But the Grand Prix is a bit of an add-on if they want to do it. They spent time with Damon; you see him every day, and if you’re a F1 fan you get to spend incredible time with him that you wouldn’t do otherwise.

Chefs, Cars and Skiing

Amin with Damon Hill in Provence. Photo: © Momentum Ski

Felice What sort of clients would you have for this? Are they just individuals who book?

Amin They’re all individuals. We have some clients from America who came over from the East Coast and they’re individuals and couples, and they bring their own cars. Our American clients just hired some cars and there’s no rule on the cars, but just enjoy the incredible scenery on the roads and unbelievable food…and Damon Hill’s company. If somebody told me Pink Floyd are doing a ski weekend to some unknown ski resort no one’s even heard of, I would just go. I’ll just say: ‘How much? I’ll go.’ Same thing.

Felice Of course, they’re all fans, aren’t they?

Amin I might fall apart and break apart when I meet them, but yes.

Felice When I look through your website, there’s three things I see most of all are food, cars and mountains. Do you have a favourite out of those three?

Amin Food, cars and mountains? Mountains are the favourite, I guess. The food comes along with it always. Yes, in that order, I think cars are third, but I think mountains are where I’m the happiest. I’ve just been very lucky to meet some incredible people through all these years. As I’ve said, a lot of the celebrities, whether they’re in sports or in food, this is the time that they come and relax – in the mountains – and it’s great to share a bit of my knowledge and try and filter that.

Peter You probably find you get some celebrities turning up as clients as well?

Amin Yes. We’ve had quite a few have booked their ski trips with us. I had once Jeremy Clarkson book a ski trip to St Moritz. Anyway, two weeks later, I saw an article in the Sunday Times which started about how uncomfortable skiing was and, typically him, we didn’t see a single point about what skiing was all about. I just was reading going, ‘Oh my God, this is a disaster. I’m going to get towards the end of it. I’m just going to say my trip was organised by Momentum Ski.’ So as I was reading this entire article about how it was cold and uncomfortable. But then he finishes saying, ‘But seeing the smile on my kid’s face meant everything. And I’ll definitely go back.’

Felice I’ve seen Amy Williams Bobsleigh and Skeleton Day in Innsbruck on your website. Is that a one-off?

Amin We’ve done it a few times. So again, that’s aimed more at the adrenaline junkies. So Peter, if you remember, you and I went to St Moritz a few years ago and was challenged by, at the time, the tourist office director.

So we if you remember I was challenged by the tourist office director to try the Cresta Run, which is the most famous skeleton run skeleton run. And you came to watch, I think it was, you know, 5 or 6 in the morning. I have never been so terrified in my whole life. I did not breathe that entire length of the track.

Peter I was just terrified – watching you being terrified.

Amin Actually, it was an extraordinary experience. When I was having the briefing…I can’t remember his title, but he was a colonel – Digby Willoughby. He said, ‘That’s a village down there. It’s called Celerina. I expect to be there in less than a minute.’ Anyway, I finished the first run and I absolutely loved it. So I went back and did it twice and I started getting very comfortable with it, and thought this is the time to stop. But I thought there must be people who are interested in doing this, so why don’t I get an Olympic gold medallist, Amy Williams? Great Britain is one of the most successful countries in skeleton, winning medals and gold, world championships.

So Amy and I put this trip together to Innsbruck. Amy said that Innsbruck is one of the safest tracks in the world. Innsbruck is a beautiful town, Christmas markets…and why don’t we introduce the thrill of skeleton to some clients? So we had a small group of clients, typically 15, 16 is what you really want. They all had a go, and also we put them in the Olympic bobsleigh where they sat as passengers, which is like being inside a washing machine. They absolutely loved it, again, just seeing their faces as they finished it, the thrill. That’s incredible. Expression and satisfaction on the clients was incredible. It was brilliant. So we do that occasionally.

Felice I always ask everyone we interview. Has anything ever gone wrong? Had any funny disasters or not so funny disasters?

Amin Oh, I’ve got to think about that one. OK, let’s put it this way: if there was a camera crew during my gourmet ski experience, it would have made the best documentary. The chefs – it’s another it’s another level. Some of the things that I’ve seen in the kitchen was extraordinary. So I don’t think I can repeat any of it, but I’ve had situations where I’ve had very high-paying guests at Gourmet Ski Experience, almost not having a dinner. I can’t tell you really.

Peter Sometimes things go wrong for everybody.

Amin Yes, I’ll have to think about that one.

Peter Of course, on a personal level it can go wrong, too, can’t it? I well, remember on your skeleton debut in St Moritz, you crashing out of the track at 75, 80 miles an hour on the famous Shuttlecock corner?

Amin Yes, Shuttlecock corner…where I still have my tie. I always remember Peter, you always say that looks like a tie from a badminton club, rather than the St Moritz club.

Peter It’s one of the two most famous corners on the track. And anyone who crashes there gets a tie.

Amin That’s right. It’s got little Shuttlecocks on it.

Felice That’s because it’s so dangerous and you’ve survived.

Amin It is. If the skeleton lands on you, it can crush you. Luckily when I was up in the air, I managed to push it away from me. It was scary.

Peter You land on a bale of straw, I think, don’t you?

Amin Yes, exactly. And then it was the walk of shame, standing on the side of the road and every car going past knew what had happened to me.

Peter So what’s the future from here? You’ve built this empire of corporate entertainment.

Amin The future is exciting news. We are expanding our offer; we’re not just skiing – we’re now doing the grand tour. We’re doing lots of summer events for our clients. This autumn we are going to be evolving our brand, it’s very exciting, which is going to our strategy of being an all year-round operator rather than just a ski operator. So nothing dramatic, but the Momentum brand will evolve, which will reflect in all-year business rather than just ski.

I think we’re changing lifestyles. We’ll be doing more and more non winter trips, holidays, events, experiences. But really I want to continue creating lifetime memories and these extraordinary experiences…we’ll continue doing that. I think the celebrities in a way not only just endorse it, but also it gives access to people to meet the rock stars of their world.

Felice If people want to book with you or find out more, how do they do that?

Amin So at the moment it is Momentumski.com but that’s going to change this autumn. But at the moment everything is under our Momentum Ski brand. Or just drop me an email [email protected] or just go to momentumski.com. That’s the best way to get in touch with us or call us. We like we like talking to people.

Peter Amin Momen, thank you very much indeed for appearing on the show today. And we wish you the very best of luck in the future with all your gastronomic and skiing experiences. And on a personal note, we both hope to ski with you again very soon indeed.

Amin Great to see you both, absolutely.

Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected]. Until next week, stay safe.

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