Fred Sirieix is rocking up and down on a fibreglass fairground duck, grinning from oreille to oreille.
“It’s from a French funfair and I fell in love it with – so I bought this duck!” he cries, his steed’s cartoon stare appearing to widen.
It is classic Fred.
Since he began hosting blind dates at central London’s Paternoster Chop House for Channel 4’s First Dates in 2015, the ever ebullient French maître d’ and wine expert has become something of an institution of British television.
Over the past six years, his handsome yet goofy persona has proved as ideal a match for light entertainment foodie and roadtrip shows as working front-of-house at some of the capital’s fanciest restaurants, including Le Gavroche, Sartoria and Brasserie Roux.
Wearing a well-fitted grey T-shirt and blue jeans, Sirieix speaks to me over video call from his home in south London. Sirieix has a 17-year-old daughter who dives for Team GB (“she’s a teenager; I’m very embarrassing for her”) and a 12-year-old son.
[See also: How Brexit is already changing what we eat]
Sirieix didn’t have time to meet in person, which is unsurprising: his twinkly blue eyes, salt-and-pepper beard and signature grin seem to pop up on every channel these days.
Whether he’s goading Michelin star chefs for their inability to recreate the snack, Monster Munch, on Snackmasters (Channel 4) or competing in chilli-eating challenges in Mexico with Gino D’Acampo and Gordon Ramsay in Gordon, Gino and Fred: Road Trip (ITV), Sirieix is a fixture on British screens. His European passion a foil to the grumpy English men he often stars alongside.
Last year, the First Dates restaurant relocated and reopened in Manchester to film its 16th series. The old normal has returned with Sirieix smoothly complimenting and reassuring nervous daters at the front desk. (He spent the pandemic, “thinking of those people who were by themselves during lockdown, it must have been very, very hard”.)
Even his prized duck is the product of his latest TV foray: it was a £150 purchase that was bought during a trip to a French antiques depot in Hastings, with the arts dealer Drew Pritchard, for the new series of Salvage Hunters on Quest. The voiceover of which describes him as “the nation’s favourite Frenchman”.
The duck reminds him of being a little boy, growing up in Limoges, France. It sounds like an idyllic childhood. His parents, both healthcare workers, would take him on weekends to traditional countryside fairs.
“There would be a mushroom fair, chestnut fair, apple fair. And there were always these brocantes and vide-greniers [“emptying the attic”] which is basically where people empty their houses and sell what they have, like a car boot sale here.”
Yet the romance of the Massif Central foothills were not enough to keep Sirieix in France. Now 49, he moved to the UK when he was 20, where he started his career working at the three Michelin star restaurant, La Tante Claire, in Chelsea, having finished catering college and his training in France.
“I wanted to live my life in English and I didn’t want to live a life like everybody else,” he recalls. As a teenager, he learned English fast and was better at it than his peers. He developed a taste for rock music – playing air guitar and singing along to AC/DC in front of the mirror. Now, he dreams in English and conducts “business and relationships” in English. (Though he speaks to himself in French while counting his 301 push-ups in the morning.)
“That love of English really is what took me to England,” he says. “As much as I am French, I’ve been here [in the UK] longer than I’ve been in France… It’s like you’re living another life. I am me, but I am living in English.”
Sirieix pauses, then breaks the reflective mood. “And zen I still sound like zzzat! Eet will never go!” he hams. “It’s funny, after all those years, my daughter speaks like the Queen and my son is a real south Londoner – and I sound like zat! After all zees time!”
Yet the UK’s current crisis in hospitality has erased even Sirieix’s smile. Fiercely loyal to the industry, he has only recently left his role in December 2019 as the general manager of the restaurant, Galvin at Windows – the sky-high 28th floor rooftop restaurant at the Hilton on Park Lane – where he worked for 14 years.
Waiters and lower-level chefs, who do not have “skilled” worker status under the government’s new immigration rules, are in short supply. There were 102,000 vacancies in hospitality from April to June 2021: a rise of 12.1 per cent compared with the 91,000 figure for the same period in 2019.
Both the pandemic and Brexit led to the workforce shortage we see today. The proportion of EU workers in the UK’s hospitality sector was 43 per cent in 2019.
“When Brexit happened, all these people went home or never came back. In 2016, we’d never made any provision to replace those people. So people leave, you don’t replace them, and then Covid hits,” sighs Sirieix, who has by this point swapped his duck for a desk chair.
“There are no staff. It’s just crazy when I think people don’t think it’s a career and it’s labelled as low-skilled. The thing is, it hasn’t got a good reputation, very sadly, and that’s a shame.”
Who’s responsible? “We as a country, as an industry, the consumer as well, everybody has to take the blame – we have never given enough love and attention to the industry, not enough investment for professional education, so we are suffering the consequences.”
For years, Sirieix has tried to change perceptions of service jobs. In 2012, he started a campaign to attract new recruits called National Waiters Day and four years ago, he launched a charity called The Right Course, which turns prison kitchens into restaurants to offer training to inmates.
He wants the Treasury, the Education Secretary and businesses to work together to inform people about vacancies in the industry, and also to improve working conditions and pay.
“If we don’t do that at pace, I don’t see the situation getting better for another ten or 20 years. It has never been as bad as what it is. It’s very scary,” he warns. “I cannot comprehend how it is being sidelined and not being dealt with in an urgent manner.”
Prices will increase and menus will be reduced as a result, he predicts. “You’d have three starters, three mains, three desserts, because you only have three chefs and that’s all they can cook… The prices will increase, you can’t find stuff – we will all suffer, the whole country will suffer.”
Sirieix fears the reputation of British restaurants and food culture has already been hit. When he started out, chefs would make their own stock – now, he says, most don’t have the manpower so are forced to buy it ready-made.
“If you want quality, fresh food cooked to order by a chef who knows how to cook that product, you need a trained person. When you want to do cuisine that is not like opening a bag and putting it in a microwave, you need trained people, the same for front-of-house… You go to a restaurant and you ask about the wine – ‘What would be good with my lamb?’ And people look at you blankly, they don’t know.”
The Anglophile Frenchman entertaining British viewers with his jolly jaunts around the country is suddenly deflated. The broken relationship between the UK and Europe is haunting the industry he loves.
“I felt it was the wrong thing to do. If Brexit was good for the UK and for my children who are both British, I would be for it,” he says. “But I think it’s a con and it’s a lie and it’s not good for the country and for us all. And we are much poorer in every sense of the word because of it.”
Salvage Hunters Series 15 Fred Sirieix Special airs at 8pm Wednesday 22 September on Quest