First Dates' maître d' Fred Sirieix gives his advice on love
First Dates is the latest success in a long line of television dating shows. Won over by its genuine charm and the ringside seats to first encounters, it is the advice on love from French maître d' Fred Sirieix that is the icing on the cake. Joe O'Shea meets the man whose enthusiasm for l'amour has everyone hooked
It's not surprising just how hard it is to get a date with Fred Sirieix, the break-out star of Channel 4's First Dates.
TV's best-loved maître d' is a busy man these days, overseeing front-of-house operations for two of London's most high-profile restaurants while also dealing with the kind of celebrity and social-media fandom that only usually comes with singing in a boyband.
But if Fred (he appears to be "just Fred" with everybody) is flustered, he's doing a convincing impersonation of a man who's taking it all in his well-tailored stride.
The 43-year-old Frenchman, memorably described as a "cross between Eric Cantona and Lumière the talking candlestick from Beauty and the Beast" is chatty and relaxed after a "very busy Christmas" and ready to talk love, Shakespeare, Socrates and boxing.
And of course, he has his own take on the runaway success of Channel 4's dating show, which has recently finished its fourth season and is about to get an Irish version.
For Fred, the secret of the success of First Dates is simple. It's about love. And honesty. And "not playing games" with the nervy singletons who show up at the Paternoster Chop House in London, hoping to meet that special someone.
"We don't play games with people and we are not trying to catch them out. Nobody is there to look bad, or to be made look bad. We don't try to increase the pressure or drama. We just want people to come to the restaurant to find love. It is natural and honest, it's simple," he says.
"Yes, it is a TV show. And what you see are moments from a date that can last two, three hours. It is about entertainment, about allowing us to watch as people meet up for the first time.
"But the show has a good heart. It is very pure. The intention is to try and help people to find happiness. And I think there is no other show that is like that."
In his charmingly accented English and very direct, cynicism-free sentiments, Fred puts his finger on what many critics and fans celebrate about First Dates.
Its main rivals at the moment are ITV's uninspiring Dinner Dates and Take Me Out, the brassy, innuendo-filled speed-dating show that can, at its trashiest moments, make Cilla Black-era Blind Date look like Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
The set-up on First Dates is simple. Two singletons arrive separately at the brightly lit Paternoster Chop House in St Paul's in London. They are greeted by Fred, who has a little chat with them before showing them to their table. The discreetly placed cameras simply watch and eavesdrop as the date progresses.
There is some flirting, lots of awkward moments and plenty of "getting to know you" chat as the singles try to eat spaghetti without getting it all down the front of their outfits. And then there is the debrief, where we find out what each thought about the other and whether there is any chance of a second date.
It all sounds very simple. But what viewers get is a very intimate, ringside seat for the all-too-familiar dance of the first date. And we find ourselves rooting for the singletons we like - or hoping to God they don't make a mistake and fall for the ones we don't.
"I think it appeals to people because everybody can relate to that, everybody is in a relationship, or wants to be in a relationship and we have all had first dates, the good ones and the bad," says Fred.
"It's about learning. People are questioning themselves about their own relationships as they watch, it makes them think about how they handle those situations themselves, what they do right and wrong. And maybe helps you understand past mistakes.
"Also, I think it is warm. It is natural for us to want people to be happy. It's a very human instinct."
Fred professes to be very happy himself. Now aged 43 and living in London for over two decades after stints in New York and Monaco, the Frenchman and his Italian girlfriend Alex live in Peckham in South London with their two children, 11-year-old Andrea and six-year-old Lucien.
He is still working in two restaurants in London, one Michelin-starred, and appears to be comfortable with his celebrity status.
"Yes, a lot of people want photographs with you. And that can be difficult if you are in a hurry or working. But it's a positive, after all -people wouldn't want their photograph with you if they did not like you," he says.
Fred peppers his talk about love and relationships with references to the Greek philosopher Socrates and to lines from Shakespearean sonnets. That might sound a little precious and affected. But when it's delivered with a French accent and simple sincerity, it works.
However, while Fred is fond of quoting poetry and philosophy, as a big fan of martial arts and boxing (he spars with other boxers at least once a week at his local club) he also has more practical views on the battle between the sexes.
"It is strange, people can be very impatient to find a partner, can be very anxious to get it right straight away. But you do not become a black-belt at karate in a month. It takes time. And you have to work hard and have patience," he says.
There will be an Irish version of First Dates coming to our screens this year. Fred is very happy to see the show achieving success outside of the UK, and he believes that the basic rules to dating and finding love are universal.
Having worked in many different cities as the front-of-house man for restaurants, the Frenchman has had over two decades of watching people at the sharp end of dating.
"People are the same when it comes to finding love," he says.
"I see it so often, it is people who have self-awareness, who know themselves best and are comfortable in themselves who do best.
"It is very important to listen to the other person and to be able to take the pressure out of a first date, to help your companion to relax. You have to remember, it is not a competition, you don't have to talk all of the time, it's good to listen too."
Fred is a people watcher. It is a big part of his job and something that comes naturally to him in any case.
"When people come in through the door, you get that feeling about the first person, about who they are, and then the second person, the same. And you get a feeling straight-away, within seconds I make up my mind on whether it is going to work or not, if they have the right chemistry."
As an example, Fred picks one of the fans' favourite First Dates couples - Jo and Naomi - who only met up after Jo had finally found the courage to start dating women.
"I was feeling that chemistry especially about Jo and Naomi," he says.
"I remember Jo coming in first, then Naomi, and I thought straight away, 'Oh my God! This is going to work out!' I just knew it."
First Dates has been a bit of a slow-burn on TV, carefully building a very impressive audience which buys into the small dramas, the flirting, the dating disasters and success stories.
When Geordie brunette Georgina was stood up on her first date, over 2.2 million people tuned in to the next episode to see if she could make the most of her second chance (happily for the producers, her subsequent on-off dalliance with "hunky banker Alex" spun off into a soap opera of its own).
Returning characters and dating disasters have been skilfully woven into the show as it has progressed through four seasons. And there has even been a proposal, a development that elevates First Dates into the kind of national treasure status once enjoyed by Cilla and Blind Date.
It is a very now take on an age-old format. And by going the "classy" route, the team behind the show have made it a dating programme that you are not ashamed to admit to liking.
If the louder, brasher Take Me Out is Heat magazine brought to the small-screen, First Dates is Grazia (a distinction that is not lost with the companies who advertise around the show).
With a fifth season now commissioned and spin-offs reaching Ireland and further afield, the Channel 4 show should have plenty of life left in it yet.
But what is surprising is that the man who is its heart (as well as it's handsome face) is not interested - for now - in quitting the day job.
"I still work day-to-day in the restaurants, I do not want to change that. I don't have a TV agent," says Fred.
His lack of representation, in a town where everybody and anybody who has ever had screentime has a "rep", is truly surprising.
Fred may find that 2016 brings plenty of offers of dates from agents and producers wanting to bottle a little of that Gallic charm.
Fred's words of wisdom
Fred is loved for his very French way of philosophising on love and life. Here are some of his words of wisdom (probably best read in the voice of his fellow French philosopher, Eric Cantona)
On Dating Chemistry:
"It just depends if people have that je ne sais quoi, if they find this va va voom together. When two beautiful people come together we are all waiting for this perfect fairytale, that Disney sort of fairytale where they live happily ever after and have a lot of children - but either you feel it or you don't feel it."
On One of The Oldest Questions Known to Man:
"What do women want? This is one of the big questions. They want men to listen to them. This is one of the things that is universally known."
On the skills of Gallic Lovers:
"People say the French are better lovers. But at the end of the day things are not black and white. There's a lot of grey, and a lot of colours of the rainbow in between. So you know, it's not that simple… But are the French better lovers than anybody else? I probably would say so."
On Serial Daters:
"Some people have perfected the art of dating, it's the way they bring flowers, champagne - just like a peacock displaying his feathers, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't."
On The Nature of Man:
"No man is an island. No matter what people think about themselves, how strong they are, how tough they are, everybody needs someone to cuddle with, or to give them that little bit of love."
Love on the box
The Dating Game (USA), '60s & '70s
The daddy of dating shows from the USA's king of Trash TV, Chuck Barris. The Dating Game, which debuted in 1965, established the classic formula of three guys or girls behind a screen with one singleton posing the questions. It ran on American TV until 1980 and featured some very-before-they-were-famous faces including Tom Selleck, Farah Fawcett, Steve Martin and Burt Reynolds. Even a young Michael Jackson appeared on one show.
Cilla Black became everyone's favourite cheeky auntie when this Saturday evening staple first appeared on ITV back in 1985. It quickly became a family favourite, featuring incredibly cringe-y set-up lines from the contestants and Cilla's scouse wit. It finally ran out of steam in 2003, but only after creating several marriages and a long, lucrative career for Cilla.
Brendan Courtney fronted this cheeky combination of quiz-show/dating-game and travel programme for four seasons from 1999 to 2002 on RTÉ2.
Brendan would accompany the singles who won through to the trip to some European city and it always looked like they had visited a LOT of bars.
Remember this bit of fun from TG4, hosted by Aoife Ní Thuairisg? The formula was "three guys buy clothes for a girl and she picks the outfit and guy she likes best". It got very good viewing figures for the Irish language station and proved you could have a lot of fun with an Irish dating show on a relatively tiny budget. TG4's current dating show Pioc Do Ride is equally entertaining.
Take Me Out
Still going, still giving waking nightmares to the critics and still finding an audience amongst those who reckoned Blind Date was a little too high-brow for their tastes. It's been routinely called things such as "the worst show on TV" and "an affront to human civilisation" but TMO has ardent fans, who particularly love host Paddy McGuinness. The Irish version was fronted by Ray Foley.