TheArtOfService

Secrets of the maitre d’

TheGuardian

Fred Sirieix knows exactly where his interest in service comes from: his parents’ careers in the French equivalent of the NHS in Limoges, where he grew up. “Every day before going on the night shift my dad would shave,” he says now. “I asked him why he did that. He told me it was to make the patients trust him. The conversation around the dinner table was all about patient care. It was about making sure people had a good experience.”
This, he says, is what has driven him through a lifelong career front of house both in France and the UK. It has led to his current position as general manager of Galvin at Windows, perched high above London at the Park Lane Hilton and, through his role in Channel 4’s First Dates, as the nation’s maître d’, cupid in a sharp suit, making sure that potential lovers have the best possible chance of getting it together over dinner. “When you talk about hospitality,” he says, “you are talking about connecting with people. It’s about giving first and giving generously.”
And all this delivered with the glorious see-saw of his French accent. Sirieix, who has two children and lives in south London with his partner, is bright-eyed and intense. When he talks, there’s never a fear that he will scan the room over your shoulder in search of someone more interesting. He is interested only in you. It is utterly beguiling, as the many fans of his short lectures on the art of love, delivered in First Dates, already know.

And yet beneath this warmth and gloss lies a mind like a steel trap. He is able to take the very emotional business of working front of house and break it down into functions and systems. “What I’m good at,” he says, “is looking at the customer journey, at the what and the how. There are key touch points in it that have to be managed.” He talks about the process when a customer first approaches reception – “you must see, smile and say hello to people before they can do it to you”; about how there should be “five smiles” from his staff en route from reception to the table. “Though, of course, we are a big restaurant. In a smaller restaurant perhaps it is three.” The fact is, he says, that “if you get all that right, the food tastes better”. Unsurprisingly, he’s now in demand as a consultant for companies outside the restaurant world who also have to look at customer service.
As is the often the case, much of his story is happenstance. School did not suit him and when a friend announced he was going to catering college, Sirieix followed. While he did some training in the kitchen, and believes he could still work a service as a cook if they were desperate, he soon specialised in working front of house. After training in a Michelin one-star in France he came to England to work at Pierre Koffmann’s La Tante Claire as much, he says, out of a love of the English language as anything else. That was 24 years ago. Since then he has worked everywhere from Le Gavroche to Sartoria and the Bluebird Cafe, before joining up with the Galvin brothers 10 years ago.
Sirieix readily acknowledges that the British often look down upon working as a waiter. Of the 45 front of house staff at Galvin at Windows, only two are British. So a few years ago, he launched National Waiters Day – it takes place in October this year – to celebrate the job and attract talent into hospitality.
“I wanted people to know there’s a real and rewarding career here. I want to change perceptions about being a waiter. I don’t think British people are bad at being waiters,” he says. “I just don’t think they are offered it as an option. The problem lies with the schools and the parents.” So, I ask, what makes a good waiter? “You have to enjoy people and you need to be able to understand people,” he says. “Every single person is different. But as you become more experienced you get a rucksack of knowledge that helps you to see what’s happening and understand how to react.”
Sirieix readily acknowledges that the British often look down upon working as a waiter. Of the 45 front of house staff at Galvin at Windows, only two are British. So a few years ago, he launched National Waiters Day – it takes place in October this year – to celebrate the job and attract talent into hospitality.
“I wanted people to know there’s a real and rewarding career here. I want to change perceptions about being a waiter. I don’t think British people are bad at being waiters,” he says. “I just don’t think they are offered it as an option. The problem lies with the schools and the parents.” So, I ask, what makes a good waiter? “You have to enjoy people and you need to be able to understand people,” he says. “Every single person is different. But as you become more experienced you get a rucksack of knowledge that helps you to see what’s happening and understand how to react.”
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Viewers of First Dates know that however lightly he wears it, his own rucksack is full. Why did he decide to do television? He gives a brilliantly Gallic shrug. “It sounded fun and you have to consider any opportunity. I looked carefully at it and became sure it was a good programme at heart.” So does he enjoy being recognised? He smiles. “It’s nice when you can get a table in a crowded restaurant,” he says. Though of course, only when the maître d’ handles the situation well.
Fred Sirieix’s dos and don’ts

How do you get the best table?

You ask to speak to the manager and explain why it’s important, but always be polite. And sometimes, if you’re lucky you can have it.
What’s the best way to complain?

You say what’s happening. Explain it in a clear and chronological manner. Don’t be an arse about it, but be firm. See their reaction and decide whether they have dealt with the problem properly and if they haven’t, don’t ever go back. Somebody working front of house needs to be able to listen to customers and put themselves in their shoes.
Is the customer always right?

Yes. The times when the customer is not always right are so rare that they are not even worth mentioning. There are words and phrases that no waiter should ever say to a customer. They are: “No, but …”; “I’ll double check …”; “I’ll try”; “Why … ?”
Define the best kind of customer

Any customer is good. I like people. There are those who come by themselves once a year and those who come three times a week. It doesn’t matter how often they come or why. They are all deserving of good service.
What is the worst type of customer?

Sometimes people are plain rude, inconsiderate or ignorant. But this is not because they are in a restaurant. This is because they are people. They would be like this in a supermarket or at a doctor’s surgery. These people are not well. But it’s so rare that it’s not worth mentioning. In 10 years here, I have had only two people I would have had to remove from the restaurant if they’d carried on. One was using foul language. The other was a table of ex-public school boys who kept putting their plates on the floor when they’d finished their food. I spoke to them and they topped.
e there any red lines for customers?

If a customer is drunk and is touching a member of staff inappropriately, if they are using foul language or if their behaviour becomes threatening, then that is unacceptable.
What do you think of phones in restaurants?

In the future, possibly phones will come with health warnings. It’s become an addiction. People are taking pictures of food but they are not talking to each other. Look, I don’t mind what they do. If they are using flash and it is irritating others then yes, I would intervene. When you work front of house you have to use good sense when deciding to get involved.
Many people find service charges and tipping confusing. Do you agree?

Yes, it would be good if you could include service in the price of the meal. But then the price would increase and there would be tax implications. And how do you come up with a system that would work both for McDonald’s and Galvin at Windows? It’s an imperfect system, but if we change it, the replacement has to work for everyone.
Are waiters paid enough in Britain?

No, but I feel the same way about teachers and those who work for the NHS. But both pay and working conditions for waiters are improving.
You should become a waiter because …?

… of the many opportunities in this industry. It opens doors to so many things. You can travel the world as a waiter.
To be a good waiter you must be…?

Human.