First Dates’ love guru Fred Sirieix has a big heart. Not only has he recently launched The Right Choice, teaching prisoners the art of hospitality and service, he also has a lot of love for his adopted neighbourhood of Peckham…
Anyone who’s seen the impossibly charming maître d’ on Channel 4’s reality show First Dates may be surprised to discover that Fred Sirieix describes himself as a ‘south London boy’. The man with the sexy French accent is a long-term resident of Peckham and loves nothing more than a run on the Rye.
‘I wanted to learn English so I came over and never looked back,’ says Sirieix, who moved to London over 20 years ago from his native Limoges, west France. ‘It’s amazing. I bought in Peckham because it was cheap. Now I can’t afford my own home,’ he chuckles.
I bought in Peckham because it was cheap. Now I can’t afford my own home!
Sirieix has won a legion of fans for the romantic words of wisdom he delivers straight to camera on the reality dating show. There’s no doubt his rugged good looks and Gallic charm have helped, but some over-enthusiastic fans have compared him to a modern-day Shakespeare. His insights, he says, have simply been picked up from years working front of house. ‘When you work in restaurants you meet a lot of people and you observe, listen and learn,’ he says rather modestly.
While the reality show that brought the married dad of two to the attention of the nation is filmed in the Paternoster Chop House, Sirieix is actually general manager of Galvin at Windows, the Michelin-star restaurant at the London Hilton on Park Lane.
He and his boss Chris Galvin share an altruistic streak. They joined forces in 2009 to form Galvin’s Chance, an into-work initiative to help disadvantaged young people get training, placements and employment in hospitality. ‘The difference it makes is really, really amazing,’ he says of the project, which has helped people aged 18-24 find work in some of London’s top restaurants.
A lot of people in prison are there because they didn’t have the chances I had. We aim to give people a sense of pride and make them more employable by teaching them skills they can utilise on the outside
Sirieix has now set up his own scheme, The Right Course, teaching prisoners the art of hospitality and service. Launched last year at HM Prison Isis in south east London, a category C prison for male young offenders up to the age of 20, the project uses the kitchen canteen to train inmates how to cook and serve food.
‘A lot of people in prison are there because they didn’t have the chances I had,’ he says. ‘Hopefully we’re helping them understand the opportunities are there by sharing the values that are important for success not only in work but in life,’ he says. ‘Things like discipline and the ability to work hard, have faith and trust in oneself and to believe that it can happen. We aim to give people a sense of pride and achievement and make them more employable by teaching them skills they can utilise on the outside.’
A total of 20 offenders were selected to take part in last year’s course – 10 working front of house and the other 10 in the kitchen with Chris Galvin. Fred presented his philosophy of service to the offenders, who were taught the basics of working front-of-house through role-play. The training culminated in a pop-up restaurant in the staff canteen last December where 40 guests, including chef José Pizarro and Prison’s Minister Andrew Selous, were served a delicious French bistro three-course meal prepared by Galvin and the team of inmate chefs.
Members of the public were able to buy tickets to the meal which included a Galvin-cured smoked salmon, buckwheat blini, fromage blanc, dill oil and caviar, followed by a main of slow cooked ox cheek, pomme purée and haricot vert.
‘It was just amazing,’ he says. ‘The best feedback I had was when one of the chaps said he didn’t feel like he was in prison that day – he felt free. When you’re in prison it’s horrible. Your cell is small, your bed is small, it’s very claustrophobic. It was fantastic to be able to give people that kind of experience.’
The Right Course is set to return this spring with José Pizarro taking charge of the menu and training the chefs. Sirieix hopes it will become a regular training course not just at HMP/YOI Isis, but across the country. ‘There’s a real staff shortage in hospitality, so I hope this will be the start of a wider national charitable initiative so that prisoners can join our industry and become true experts and role models,’ he says.
You can apply for a ticket to the next pop-up (date to be confirmed), but if you’re not lucky enough to bag a space for dinner behind bars, Sirieix has plenty of local restaurant recommendations – especially for first dates.
‘There are so many great restaurants in Peckham now, it’s amazing,’ says Sirieix, who says his top choices would be Pedler and Miss Tapas in Peckham and Chapters in Blackheath. ‘They’ve all got good food, excellent service, offer great quality and are lots of fun.’
So, any tips for first-daters? ‘It’s important to be open and honest, clear about who you are, what you want and give things a chance. Go with the flow.’