Wednesday 24 Sep 2014
Monday 12 April on BBC TWO
Alasdair (Ali) Hooper and James Knight Pacheco may not exactly be household names but fans of BBC Two's The Restaurant, in which teams go head to head in a bid to win the chance to open their own eatery (with the backing of Michelin-starred chef Raymond Blanc), will certainly remember them.
The best friends, who were runners-up in the 2008 series, provided much entertainment in The Restaurant with their bickering and stress-filled antics, not to mention Ali's spelling problems on menus, but behind all that was a very determined and talented pair who clearly have what it takes to make it in the business.
Raymond certainly thought that, too, as immediately after the duo lost out in the final (to winners Michele English and Russell Clement, who successfully opened their restaurant, The Cheerful Soul), he offered Ali and James the chance to fine-tune their skills in a three-month intensive training course at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons – his two-Michelin-starred restaurant and hotel in Great Milton, Oxfordshire.
Their training over and now with newfound confidence – not to mention an ability to soldier on even if things aren't quite going their way – Ali and James are the stars of their own TV show on BBC Two, Out Of The Frying Pan, in which they launch themselves into the world of event catering.
Ali tells Jane Dudley that before The Restaurant he didn't even like being in photos or family videos, let alone on television; now, though, he's as much at home in front of the TV cameras as he is front of house in a restaurant. "I hated being in photos or in front of the video camera when the family get it out at Christmas but I've really enjoyed the whole process of being on TV.
"We've had experiences that we would never, ever have and it's really opened up opportunities," he continues.
The series couldn't be more aptly named; the proverbial frying pan being the stress and strain of The Restaurant and the fire being challenges including hosting a six-course dinner party for multi-millionaire businessman and TV Dragon Duncan Bannatyne. As if that wasn't daunting enough, the party took place in the exclusive hilltop town of Mougins, just outside Cannes in the south of France, where Duncan and his wife, Joanne, own a luxury villa. "I'd never even been to France," admits Ali. "I should have gone in Year Seven but I didn't! It was wonderful. I don't speak French and I think that probably shone across in the challenge!"
That challenge saw the pair struggling to cross the language barrier when sourcing local ingredients – a pre-requisite from Bannatyne – and also saw them overcoming problems such as a dessert that didn't quite go to plan; something that, perhaps, would have seen Ali and James going to pieces over during their time on The Restaurant.
"We make mistakes because we're under pressure and nothing in this world goes swimmingly, ever – nothing's easy. So we made mistakes but nothing that was a massive catastrophe. We didn't burn down a private kitchen belonging to Duncan Bannatyne or anything like that. You look back on it and there are little things you'd change but hindsight is a wonderful thing.
"It's all part of working in the industry. No day would ever be smooth running in any restaurant anyway – you're on a downward spiral from the off!"
Other challenges in Out Of The Frying Pan saw Ali and James go to Sandhurst to cook for some cadets; prepare a meal on board a boat on the Thames; and, reveals Ali, one that involved someone they know very well turning up: "We had to be chameleon-like, adapting to new types of service and developing individual menus for each challenge. We did all sorts – we went to Sandhurst, we went on a boat floating down the Thames, and then, of course, Raymond Blanc was in one of the episodes so that added an extra element of pressure," he laughs.
"He was one of the guests at one of the events, so it was a chance for us to show him what we'd learnt and hopefully make him proud of us. We had an inkling he'd be there – when we were given the brief for that particular episode he was there, so we thought he might crop up at some point, we weren't overly surprised. But it was still a bit of a shock to the system – it upped the ante somewhat!"
But it's mainly thanks to Raymond that Ali and James are where they are today and that they've had these opportunities and, perhaps most importantly, that they've learned to deal with these stressful situations that, on occasions, were their downfall in their time on The Restaurant. So what does Ali think Raymond saw in the pair: "I think we've both had a passion for the industry for years. It's what we do and it's what we really enjoy doing – and I think maybe he saw our raw passion for it. We weren't ready to run a restaurant maybe but we certainly had the drive for it. I think Sarah Willingham [one of the inspectors on The Restaurant] said we were 'uncut diamonds' which maybe sums us up.
"Going to Le Manoir and the amount we've learned in the time we were there – the kitchen is run in such a way that it's very calm and you think more methodically ... and with front of house as well. So you learn how to deal with pressure and stress. James and I worked a lot better and I think we were a lot more understanding of each other's positions. It just flowed a lot better. We've always been friends but on a professional level I think there was an obvious improvement."
That friendship has been tested in front of the cameras before, but, says Ali, it was built to last. "Me and James have got a friendship that goes back years. Exeter is quite a small place. James went to one high school and I went to another but we had mutual friends. We vaguely knew of each other but weren't directly mates and then we started working in the same pub, and that's where we first had our idea for our own restaurant. And I realised I really enjoyed the industry. James had already been trained as a chef for years and that's when our friendship really kind of sparked and snowballed. The rest, as they say, is history.
"On The Restaurant we were aiming for a level that James had experienced but I had no idea of – I'd worked at Pizza Express and a cocktail bar. I knew what I wanted but I maybe couldn't produce it. But now I've worked at Le Manoir it just gives you an idea of what's possible. And it spurs you on to do your own thing but you also have a greater understanding of what's possible within your own limitations.
"Every day was a lesson [at Le Manoir]. For me it's that attention to detail that Raymond Blanc often refers to. Working there, you just see it for real and you can see how intrinsic it is to creating a modern classic, which is what Le Manoir is."
Now the pair have completed six very different – and difficult – challenges for Out Of The Frying Pan, are they going to set their sights on entering the world of event catering? "I think it's certainly a world neither of us had really thought about or worked in before," says Ali. "It's having that ability to adapt to a new environment, so almost becoming a bit like a catering chameleon which is the real challenge, and that's the beauty of it.
"Every day is a completely new challenge but, of course, that has its down side. In a restaurant you can develop and learn from your mistakes and you get to work in the same environment every day and you really get to hone it, whereas you get a one-time shot with event catering so it adds new stresses but, at the same time, when you pull it off you could argue that it's more satisfying."
The long-term goal then, for Ali and James, remains to open their own restaurant, which would be a dream come true. James is currently working at Ashburton Cookery School in Devon, while Ali is hoping to be working in a restaurant with friends following a bout of glandular fever earlier in the year. "I miss it when I'm not in a restaurant," he says.
"Me and James both still want to open our own restaurant – it's the ultimate goal, to have your own place. Everything we do is helping us learn and get closer to that goal, so hopefully one day we'll be able to do that.
"We're all about learning at the moment and making sure we're doing the best we can, and if ever we do come to that point where we get to open a restaurant, which fingers crossed we will, we want to be at our absolute peak. We wouldn't be perfect – no one ever is – but we'd want to be at the point where we'd feel completely comfortable going in to it."
Now that really would be taking a leap Out Of The Frying Pan ...
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