With its inclusive, heartwarming and often hilarious approach to the dating world, First Dates has built itself a reputation for delivering one of TV’s most joyful hours in the week’s schedules.
Now in its 16th series, the Channel 4 show’s popularity shows no signs of slowing – it’s just started a brand new era after moving from its long-standing London eatery to set up shop in a new Manchester restaurant.
The surroundings might be different, but the man at the centre of the action remains – maître d’hôtel Fred Sirieix is still on hand to offer the daters an ego boost with his encouraging words and welcoming smile.
And while he’s become a fundamental part of the show, Fred has revealed how it took some persuading to get him to sign up when the idea was first pitched to him.
“In life, we are all defined by the company that we keep, and for me, it’s about learning, enjoying life and making a difference,” Fred reflects in his typically philosophical manner.
“I want to be doing something with people that I value or I love, and do something that I’m proud of and can show my children. And so I want to make sure I do everything for the right reason and in the right way.”
Fred was approached for First Dates by producer Molly Sayers, who had him in mind after he made a guest appearance on BBC Two’s Michel Roux’s Service in 2011.
“Until I knew who all the people behind the show were and what the show was about and how it was going to be done, I wasn’t going to say yes,” he tells HuffPost UK. “So it took me a while to decide if it was going to be the right fit.
“Everything I do, I want it to be good.”
Eight years on from its first episode, no one is prouder of First Dates’ success than Fred.
He says: “There are lots of dating shows, some of them are very good, some are not as good, some are very funny – they all have a different angle.
“But what I’m more proud of is the stories and how real it is. Whenever you watch it, it makes you feel good, it makes you smile. It’s not set up, it’s not for the cameras, it’s real and it’s true.”
Fred also praises the show’s bosses for uprooting the show from London and moving north.
Revealing he has a lot of affection for the city of Manchester and its residents, the Frenchman says: “I love Manchester, I’ve been there many times and done a lot of work there. The people are very different in Manchester, they are all happy and smiley. They love a drink, good food and they’re always up for a laugh. I’ve lived in London for nearly 30 years now but there is something in the water in Manchester, and I’d like a little bit of what they have down in London.”
He adds: “It was a move for the better and I don’t regret it. We made the right call, the perfect decision.”
However, Fred believes that the upcoming teen edition of First Dates could kick the show into a whole new gear.
“Oh my god, it is unbelievable. It is incredible,” he says, brimming with enthusiasm. “It might well dwarf the original series.
“It is so beautiful and so rich. When you watch it, it takes you back to when you were a teenager because we’ve all forgotten how we were.
“Some of them are very confident, some not, others extrovert, introvert – you’ve got it all. All the rays of personality and characters are displayed.”
With all of us locked out of restaurants at the moment, the current series of First Dates – filmed back in the autumn under a looser Covid restrictions – evokes a particular feeling of pre-pandemic nostalgia, reminding us of when we could still get dressed up and go out to sit at a table and eat a meal we didn’t have to cook for ourselves. But its timing also feels poignant given the huge challenges the hospitality industry is currently facing.
Fred, who worked at the exclusive Galvin at Windows restaurant at the London Hilton Hotel on Park Lane for 14 years until 2019, is realistic about the situation, calling it a “very scary” time for the sector.
“Every day I have friends who give me a call or send me a text to tell me they’ve lost their jobs, or that they are about to be made redundant. So it’s very difficult,” he says.
“But at the same time the industry is very resilient. It is relying on the whole of the country and society to go back to life, and it’s scary to see what is going to happen next. But we have to live everyday and be hopeful and be positive, and be aware of what is to come and not dwell on it too much, and think about what we can do when it reopens.”
During lockdown, Fred has been pouring his efforts into opening his second restaurant in a London prison.
His charity, The Right Course, works to give offenders new skills and qualifications by turning staff restaurants inside the prisons into fully functioning restaurants run by the prisoners with a view to reducing the likelihood of them reoffending after release.
“We teach prisoners how to run the restaurants so that when they leave they can get a job and be fully trained in the art of service and cooking,” he explains.
After opening his first restaurant in Isis prison in Thamesmead, London, in 2016, work is currently underway on the second at the Wormwood Scrubs facility in the west of the city.
“It’s very exciting and I can’t wait to be open,” Fred adds.
As our conversation comes to an end, I’m dying to know who Fred dreams of matchmaking on one of First Dates’ celebrity specials – and it turns out he’s aiming high.
“I’d love to set up Brad Pitt,” he reveals. “I love him and think he’s a great actor. He’d be great. I have no idea [who he’d set him up with] but it may not be a celebrity.
“That would be really cool.”
Something tells us we might not be seeing the Hollywood legend sitting down to share a fondue with Sarah from Swansea any time soon, but then again, if the last year has taught us anything, it’s that anything can happen.
The VELO ESERIES has been brought to fans by VELO as part of its ongoing global partnership with McLaren Racing. The VELO ESERIES will see top celebrities go head-to-head against internet sensations, including the likes of Fred Sirieix and Archie Hamilton. All content is being streamed on VELO’s Instagram and YouTube channels from Jan – May.
First Dates airs on Tuesdays at 10pm on Channel 4, with First Dates Teens launching on Monday at 10pm on E4.