Television

I Went on a First Date with Fred from ‘First Dates’

"I have so many stories. People are drunk all the time."

by Daisy Meager
13 November 2017, 2:46pm

Fred Sirieix at Galvin at Windows. All photos by the author. 

Sitting in the bar of Galvin at Windows, a Michelin-starred restaurant on the 28th floor of London’s Hilton Hotel in Mayfair, I start to feel uncomfortable. It’s not because I’ve just burned the roof of my mouth with coffee. Or because everyone else is wearing business casual dress and pandering to clients with glasses of second-least-expensive Chardonnay while I’m in dirty trainers and dungarees. Even the ten-strong group of posh lads in the corner whittling on about share prices and ploughing through pints at 3 PM on a Tuesday isn’t bothering me.

My palms are slightly clammy and my eyes dart to the door every time someone walks in because I’m awaiting a blind date. Kind of.

I’m here to meet Fred Sirieix, general manager of Galvin at Windows and author of recent book Secret Service: Lifting the Lid on the Restaurant World. Of course, he’s best known for his role on British TV dating show First Dates. If you’ve never seen the show, here’s a rundown: single Brits are matched “based on their likes and dislikes” (and where they live in the UK) before embarking on blind dates that are filmed for your cosy Monday night viewing pleasure. Sirieix is the ridiculously French GM and housewives’ pin-up, doling out pep-talks and inspirational quotes about l’amour to middle-aged divorcees and excitable, shiny pony-tailed Essex lasses.

After standing me up for 15 minutes, Sirieix arrives.

“Sorry I’m late. Let’s move somewhere quieter. I’ll take your coffee. Would you like some water?” he says with the polite, seamless flourish enjoyed only by customers of high-end restaurants. However, when we settle down in plush leather chairs (no pleather here), this is something Sirieix quickly rubbishes.

The author on a date with Fred Sirieix at Galvin at Windows in Central London. All photos by the author.

Since coming to London from France in 1992, the charming GM may have worked in classy joints like Le Gavroche, but he insists that the secret to good hospitality remains the same at every establishment, Michelin-starred or not.

“There’s this false idea if you are at The Ritz or somewhere like here at Galvin at Windows, service will be better than a roadside cafe. It’s not true. It will be exactly the same,” he says. “Of course the offering will differ but at the end of the day, the main elements of how you make people feel, how you come across, and whether customer wants to come back are exactly the same.”

I’m not even half a latte down when talks turns philosophical.

Sirieix muses: “A restaurant is like a cake, of which service is one slice. When you’re making the cake, it’s about following the ethos and philosophy of Socrates who held the pursuit of virtue (knowing what is good and what is bad) as the meaning of life. If something is bad and you can’t change it, like having small toilets, you know it’s going to impact the guest’s experience. So you’ve got to make up for it in your other slices.”

“You need to be clear about your vision, values, and standards. You need to know what is good and bad. You need to know how to reach out to people, understand human nature, and read people’s minds. It’s just basic stuff.”

Yeah, simple.

In an attempt to lighten conversation, I ask Sirieix about how he tackles the one thing he can’t control in a restaurant: the customers.

“I’ll look after you but don’t cross that line. Because we’re not dogs.”

He says with a laugh: “I have so many stories. People are drunk all the time. You just have to forgive them sometimes and close an eye. They’re drunk, what can you do? You can’t talk to drunk people!”

I recount a horror story from my waitressing days and he tells me about an incident with a group of “well educated, very public school, well presented guys.”

Sirieix remembers: “They had their main course and then just put the plate on the floor. People around were feeling uncomfortable because it’s not normal behaviour. It’s just disrespectful, rude, and inappropriate. It’s not on. There’s this idea that the guest is king and of course the guest is king but in that case, the guest is overstepping the mark. I told them very nicely that if they continued, they’d be out. They were profusely apologetic, finished their meal, left, and that was it.”

“I’ll look after you but don’t cross that line. Because we’re not dogs.”

Against the “advice” of every women’s magazine article about first date etiquette, I throw caution to the wind and bring up politics. Sirieix is vocal on Twitter about Brexit (TL;DR he’s not a fan—another box ticked from me) and I ask about the repercussions he has experienced in the hospitality industry.

“I can see the impact on the industry already. All of my colleagues have seen things like average spend go down. I think Brexit is a real shame and I think it has no basis,” he says, turning serious. “We have EU people, of which I’m one, living here. But I am talked about like a third person. My future and my contribution is discussed at the table and it’s the most rude thing that you can do.

Sirieix continues: “And it’s this idea that if the EU people go, who’s going to make the coffee in Pret? It’s that sense of superiority and entitlement. We cannot let these thoughts go unchecked. I’m very upset by it. It’s a real disgrace the way they are handling it.”

After some Brexit-bashing, talk turns to dating.

“I don’t have a worst first date,” Sirieix says with a Gallic shrug. “The worst first date you can have is if the girl isn’t interested. But c’est la vie, you just have to move on. And a good one is when they go well. You have that connection, you have this closer and closer conversation, and little by little you move closer and closer. Before you know it, you’ll be sitting on the same seat. And then that’s it. Then it’s going well.”

Tinder: oui or non?

“Apps are good if they help you to meet people. If it’s just to live your life online, I’m not interested.”

And if you do swipe right and meet up IRL?

“Turn up on time. Look your best and take it as it comes. John Paul Sartre said that we have to act out the passion before we can feel it. And I would suggest going to a tapas restaurant—you don’t have to commit to a full meal. You can have two or three dishes with a glass of wine and if it’s not going well, you go home. If it goes well, you can order the whole menu.”

In true First Dates fashion, I only have one question left for Sirieix: after our date, would he like to see me again?

“Of course!” he says graciously.

Personally, I’ll let the housewives keep him and just meet up as friends.