Fred Sirieix is general manager of Galvin at Windows in the London Hilton Park Lane and fronts the popular Channel 4 TV show First Dates as host and maître d’. An advocate for service inside and outside the industry, Fred co-hosted Michel Roux’s Service on BBC2 in 2011 and established National Waiters’ Day in 2012. The 45-year-old Frenchman is also heavily involved with Galvin’s Chance, a charity which helps young people secure training and work placements in the hospitality industry. Fred spoke to Hospitality & Catering News in the middle of filming a new series of First Dates Hotel and as his latest book – Secret Service: Lifting the lid on the restaurant world – is published.
You have done a great deal to put the spotlight on service, but still service professionals don’t receive the same level of media attention as chefs, why is that?
The industry needed a focus in order to put it at the forefront of television and the easiest way at the time was through chefs, because – as complicated as it is to cook – it’s easier to show the steps, whereas with service it’s much more intangible. We needed something to look at on TV and because of that we have created that impression that restaurants are just about food. The great thing about getting chefs on TV is that people want to eat better, the quality improves and people want to go to restaurants, but unfortunately with some chefs they have made it look like they are the only person who is important and responsible for success in a restaurant. However, a restaurant is like a big cake. There are many slices to this cake and cooking is just one of them, so we need to improve our understanding of what the other slices do.
How do we get it to change?
If we don’t take ownership of this fact then nothing will change, because people will always think it’s just about the food and that’s all. The industry needs to take ownership of the change it wants and when it does that and makes it happen people will start to see. When they start to see that it will start being a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You work full-time, present a TV show, have a family and devote time to helping charities. Now you have written a book. How do you find time to fit it all in?
There are 24 hours in a day so I use them wisely. You only have one life and you’ve got to do as much as you can and want to do. I want to live life to the full so that’s what I do. The older I get the more I want to do as well, as I’ve got less time to waste than before.
What is the secret to success in managing it all?
Whatever we do we never do it alone. I work with Chris Galvin and have an amazing team at Galvin at Windows. The core team has been together for the last 10 years and have been working together and growing together in that time. You cannot do anything by yourself and that’s the key to success. I love collaborating with people. When you write you work with a publisher and they guide you and give you direction. Now, we are filming First Dates Hotel and we have about 120 people on set working and making it a reality.
What is your new book Secret Service about?
The book is a memoir of my career. It includes philosophies and some pearls of wisdom and my learnings from over the years from the best in the business. It’s about the people I meet and the values they have and what they have taught me. I’ve always been proud of what I do and I’ve never had a problem with being a waiter and starting at the bottom, cleaning plates as a commis waiter. I’ve always had self-belief in my abilities, so hopefully people will find the story of a young French waiter, working in some of the best places in the world – entertaining and enlightening.
Tell us about your new TV show Million Pound Menu?
It’s a new series about discovering the new stars of the industry and new concepts and helping them to realise their dream by giving them access to the investment they need to establish it. I’m really excited to be a part of it.
What tips would you give to those who might be thinking of setting up their own hospitality business?
You’ve got to have vision and set yourself objectives and then put a team together to help you achieve that. It’s just like in any other venture, you’ve got to be determined, disciplined and believe that it’s possible, because if don’t think it’s possible, it won’t happen. You also need to know what your market wants. Simon Cowell loves listening to jazz, but he presents The X-Factor, which is all about pop music, not jazz. It’s not about your personal choices, it’s what the market wants and you’ve got to be in tune with that.
What is the biggest challenge the industry faces and how do you think we can solve it?
Staffing is a big issue. It’s so difficult to find staff. But I also think there are lots of people out there who start out and think it’s easy and don’t know what they’re doing. If you’re setting up a business you need to make sure that you’ve got a strong concept and idea and be able to create an experience that people will want and will want to come back to. There’s so much competition now and you’ve got to really think about it, because if you’re not able to make a profit at the end of the day then there’s no point setting up a business. People have these romantic ideas about running a restaurant, but doing it for real is a different thing. It’s like with boxing. Rio Ferdinand, for example, wants to become a professional boxer, but he doesn’t really understand what it takes to be a boxer. Everyone thinks they can box and everyone thinks that if they can cook a plate of egg and chips, they can run a restaurant. That’s why thinking that chefs are the main slice of the restaurant cake isn’t right, because it’s not giving the full picture.
Who, or what is your biggest inspiration?
I’ve met so many inspirational people throughout my career. When I was at Le Gavroche Michel Roux Jr and Silvano Giraldin were an inspiration. My dad is an inspiration. I’ve never met anyone as good and as honest as him. Chris Galvin is a real inspiration and so is Clinton McKenzie, who I boxed with for years. There are so many different people who have given me so much in my life at different times. I keep them in mind all the time and often think ‘what would they do?’ when I come up against a challenge.
What are your plans for the next few years?
To keep working hard and to be better than I am today. I don’t have a set plan. I just see where life takes me and as long as I’m good and I work hard things will happen.
Secret Service: Lifting the lid on the restaurant world by Fred Sirieix (Quadrille, £16.99) is out on 19th October. Photography © Chris Terry
Hospitality & Catering News, Interviews Editor