Since winning BBC TV show The Restaurant, Jane and Jeremy Hooper have gone on to establish their prize - a restaurant of their own in Oxfordshire - and are now experiencing their first hospitality Christmas. Tom Vaughan finds out how they are faring
As he sits in the front lounge of his new restaurant, Eight at the Thatch, and waits for the photographer to set up, I ask Jeremy Hooper what Christmas in Afghanistan was like. He turns to me, droll, expressionless and softly munching an apple, and says: "I'd go to war every day of the year compared with this restaurant at the moment."
War is hell - or so said General William T Sherman. But, by all accounts, so is winning the BBC TV show The Restaurant, and then taking on - as amateurs - the prize of your own business and opening six weeks before Christmas.
For those who missed the programme, Jeremy and Jane Hooper were the Royal Marine and trainee teacher, respectively, who endured nine weeks of on-screen trials and challenges, set by Raymond Blanc, to triumph over eight other couples and win the dream of running their own restaurant.
Whereas last Christmas Jeremy had to contend with Taliban militia in Afghanistan, and Jane had to come to terms with a husband at war, this year the pair have 110 daily covers plus the pressure of learning how to run a hospitality business. The latter challenge, they both admit, is the more testing.
"The difference between being in the Marines and this is that I've been in the Marines for 11 years now and I know my job," Jeremy says. "It's easy, compared with something you know nothing much about. The stresses of running this restaurant are unbelievable."
Bemoaning the hard work of opening a restaurant shortly before Christmas, the couple interrupt each other now and then to reiterate their appreciation for the opportunity. "We're worried we sound ungrateful at times, and there's no way we are," Jane says. "It's a fantastic opportunity, but such hard work to run the restaurant and learn at the same time."
All of the nine couples on The Restaurant were given their own premises, hired by the BBC from established hospitality businesses and emptied for the duration of the filming, in which to set up a restaurant. Each week, mentor and presenter Raymond Blanc set the couples a new challenge to prove they could be successful restaurateurs. With one couple eliminated each week, the pool was whittled down to two couples, from which Jane and Jeremy were chosen as winners.
They make a likeable couple - even if, at first glance, a slightly unlikely one. Jeremy is every bit the ex-Marine calm, ordered and quiet. He exudes the air of a chef up to his eyeballs in mis en place. It's an impression he does nothing to dispel by excusing himself after 15 minutes "or no one will get any lunch".
Jane, on the other hand, is far more the gregarious host. She bustles in 20 minutes late on her day off, the 2.30am close-down still showing in her eyes and sporting the bulge of a five-month pregnancy.
They both recognise that they came across as somewhat serious on TV. "We were determined to do well and every week gave ourselves a hard time about the things we didn't do well," Jane says. "It's so hard to be picked up on all your problems and mistakes every week and still remain upbeat."
The media exposure was strange, they admit, especially as Jane seemed to spend much of her air-time in tears. "For every 75 minutes of filming they show one minute, so of course me crying was better TV than other bits," she explains.
She continues: "So many tables want to know our story and it's weird that they kind of know us already. If things go wrong, then the first thing some of them will say is, ‘You're not going to cry, are you?'."
The motives for joining the thousands of other applicants vying for a spot on the show were rooted mainly in Jeremy's occupation. After working as a chef in his regiment, preparing what he describes as "school dinner-type meals", he went on to assume responsibility for the entire catering unit. His cooking spilt over into his personal life, where he began experimenting in the kitchen.
After a Christmas apart, the couple agreed they would love to start a business together. "Whatever we say, this time last year was horrendous, with Jeremy in Afghanistan," Jane says. "We wanted something we could do together."
In at the deep end
The long-term plan was for the couple to buy a mobile sandwich unit, then a sandwich shop, then a small restaurant, building up business acumen as they went. But when their bid to get on The Restaurant was successful, Jeremy organised a one-year sabbatical, with the option of leaving the Marines at the end. As it happened, the couple finished the show as winners and were instead thrown in at the deep end of the hospitality industry.
Filming finished on 3 July and Jeremy returned to his regiment briefly, after which the pair relocated from Devon to Oxfordshire. There they were given training front of house, in the kitchen and on the business side of things at various Blanc establishments and at the Peach Pub Company, which was also involved as a partner on the show, pausing only to find a spare moment in which to conceive their first child, due in March.
On screen, the couple's restaurant was called Eight in the Country, named after their eight-course menu. So when the prize was a thatched restaurant in Thame, Oxfordshire, the name transferred easily.
Situated in the heart of the rustic market town, Eight at the Thatch is half Grade II-listed cottage and half light, airy extension, fitting in a total of 70 covers. It had been pencilled in as the trophy for the victorious couple from the beginning of the series. Blanc explains that it was its proximity to his restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons (which is seven miles away), the position on the town's high street and the easy access to major roads such as the M40 that convinced him of the site's merit.
The network of support available to the couple is sizeable. Front of house, Peach Pubs has given Jane a mentor in Natalie Langman, who is helping manage the restaurant during its initial few months. In the kitchen, Adam Johnston, from Le Manoir, is mentoring Jeremy to become a competent restaurant chef. Both roles are paid for out of the restaurant's wage bill. And, of course, their original mentor, Blanc, is only a phone call away and organises regular meetings with the couple.
Jeremy's military training and experience in catering were part of the couple's appeal, Blanc admits, and from the restaurant's offering he is an able but obviously technically naïve chef. The menu is largely made up of Brasserie Blanc-style dishes such as roasted barbary duck breast, potato and turnip dauphinoise, jasmine and citrus sauce (£13.50), but Jeremy does have two of his own on there: the onion soup he cooked on The Restaurant (£4.50) and Aberdeenshire fillet medallions, wild mushrooms, red wine jus and horseradish mash (£15.50). In due course, he will dictate the entire offering but, for the time being, he is happy to learn from his mentors.
"I obviously don't feel like I'm in total control," he says. "It's sometimes hard to think this is our business, because of I don't know how to be in total control. But every day I learn a little bit more and feel a little bit better about it. It's really, really mad."
From a romantic standpoint, it would be nice for Blanc to witness his chosen couple triumph and for Jane and Jeremy to fulfil their own dream, but there is a hard-nosed business side to proceedings. The couple own Eight at the Thatch's company jointly with Blanc, and the two sides split the profits so it is, of course, in everyone's interests to see it become a success.
At present, the business is turning over about £22,000 a week but, with the building leased and high set-up and running costs, the restaurant needs to be running at a high capacity to cover the expenditure. Adam and Natalie will eventually return to their original employers and Jane and Jeremy will be in full control of the restaurant.
Built into the contract between the two sides is a get-out clause for both parties should things not be going well, and the couple admit there is speculation as to how long they will remain at the place. "Some people say the agreement is we'll be here for a year, others say three years," Jane says. "The truth is, no one has discussed a cut-off point because it isn't on our minds. We'll just see how it goes."
The true value of the arrangement for Jane and Jeremy is that they've invested nothing themselves in the business. Some statistics suggest that the proportion of restaurants which go under in their first two years is higher than two-thirds, often sending tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds of people's investment down the plug-hole but Eight in the Thatch is practically risk-free for the couple.
"We only have things to gain," Jane says. "What we can gain is experience and knowledge. If we don't even get any money from the business then, fine. But the experience and partnership with Raymond is invaluable - and money can't buy a prize like that."
Blanc on Jane and Jeremy
Jane and Jeremy didn't start strongly in the show. It was clear that Jeremy could become a good cook, but Jane was very sensitive and very emotional.
At first, they found it difficult to adapt themselves to working together. There was a lot of pressure - especially on Jeremy, who had just come back from Afghanistan to have the eyes of the BBC permanently on him. But what I love about the couple is that they have got stronger and stronger - and closer and closer - the whole time.
At first, Jeremy was slightly dismissive of Jane and not very supportive. But by the end they had changed completely.
I was looking for each of the couples to be strong in their own fields. Jeremy was a good cook and had an army background so was well organised, meticulous, clearly a good team player - he was so far ahead of others in that field.
But I was worried that he was a bit brooding at that time. He has come round and learnt that he needs to ask and enquire about how to run a kitchen, and I think his learning curve is going to shoot upwards.
Most people saw Jane as a weak and emotional individual drowning in her troubles. I saw a frustrated woman who was a complete perfectionist but outside her comfort zone. But you must remember, she never cried in front of her guests. She's a perfect host and an intelligent woman who gets very close to people and works incredibly hard. Having worked with Jane, I'd give her a nine out of 10 as a host she is a natural restaurateur. She has made Eight at the Thatch her own and really taken to her role.
Lots of people want to open a restaurant but not many understand what is involved. The restaurant is making money, and that is one of the most important things. And in Jane and Jeremy there is a couple who understand the passion and desire to do well.
We are pushing them and shoving tonnes of knowledge at them, but they are coping very well and, by the end of the year, we will have a couple who are very sharp. They are not professionals in the industry yet but, if they carry on like this, I would say there is an 80% chance they will be very successful restaurateurs.
Lloyd and Adwoa Mensah
We catch up with the third-placed contestants from The Restaurant
"We had always put off opening a restaurant before the shows," says an excitable Adwoa. "We went on the show to see if we could sell our stuff and we've come out with the confidence to try and open a restaurant in the West End. But we don't just want one we want to roll out a chain."
The Mensahs were already running a catering company, Jollof Pot, when they took part in the BBC programme. But since finishing in third place they have rebranded their market stalls on Portabello Market, Broadway Market and Exmouth Market as Spinach & Agushi - the name given to their business on the show - and hope to open their first restaurant in April or May next year.
Adwoa explains: "The Restaurant has had a very positive effect on business: Jollof Pot gets a lot more corporate events now. People call the Spinach & Agushi number asking to book tables, and we have to tell them we don't have a restaurant yet."
The stalls specialise in Ghanaian street food, with dishes such as guinea fowl stew, rabbit stew, peanut chicken and jollof rice: a spicy tomato rice that's "an African version of paella, but nicer," Adwoa says.
She also has nothing but praise for the programme and their mentor, Raymond Blanc. "The programme was amazing and much tougher than we thought it would be. Raymond was lovely, really nice. He was very constructive, really funny and very passionate. We went on because we didn't want to get slated or cussed like we might on other shows, and we learnt a hell of a lot."
By Tom Howard