‘The industry is on its knees, really.’ If you’re more used to his infectious smile and genial persona, as often broadcast on the BAFTA award-winning Channel 4 show First Dates, the ominousness in Fred Sirieix’s words is even more perturbing.
With the current shortage of skilled staff the restaurant sector is experiencing, the maître d’ of the First Dates restaurant and general manager of Galvin at Windows, is clearly under no illusions that the industry is facing one of its toughest times to date. ‘People are paying [their employees] like they’ve never paid before, the conditions are as good as they’ve ever been and it continues to improve, but unfortunately you can’t find enough staff.’
As one of the main issues is getting people both inside and outside of the industry to acknowledge and talk about the extent of the problem, Fred appreciates that we need influential figures – such as himself – to instigate that conversation. Which is why, five years ago, Fred set up National Waiters’ Day – an annual event designed to further the discourse that, contrary to public belief, genuine career opportunities in the industry do exist. ‘We are at a crossroads with the huge skills and staff shortage,’ says Fred. ‘If anyone’s joining the industry now and they are determined to succeed, and they like the job, then they will go all the way to the top. This is a guarantee. This is why I started National Waiters’ Day.’
Anyone familiar with the main event on Waiters’ Day – where FOH staff from all corners of the industry partake in a sprint in Hyde Park while tasked with balancing a bottle of water on a tray – knows it certainly does its job of attracting attention. Its success, however, depends on how well the spectacle highlights the main issue under the surface. ‘I want to make sure that at least one day a year, people hear about it on the radio, TV, in the newspapers, or in interviews,’ says Fred. ‘We need to change the way people think.’
As Fred suggests, there’s a lot of work to be done – the project’s still very much in its infancy. ‘Five years running is a bit of a landmark,’ he says. ‘It’ll be our biggest turnout so far. But it will take another ten or twenty years before we are where we want to be in the industry, unless there is a big wakeup call very quickly.’
There’s no doubt that estimation shot up after the results of Britain’s European referendum came through last June. While Brexit will change the way many restaurants source ingredients, it’s fair to say recruitment is where the industry is being hit the hardest. ‘The problem with Brexit is the manpower you’d get from the continent is not coming anymore,’ Fred says. ‘People are leaving the UK to go back to their home country, and people are not coming as they used to before.’
Home grown talent would be the obvious solution, but as things stand, catering colleges in Britain aren’t nearly well enough equipped to satisfy this sudden demand. ‘There are 290 catering colleges in the UK,’ Fred says. ‘But people coming from there are few and far between.’
While that may be the case, inspiring young staff isn’t completely futile. As far as aspirations are concerned, young front of house staff are spoilt for choice in terms of who they can look up to. ‘The Dairy in Clapham,’ says Fred. ‘They have a very good front of house team there. As do the teams at Galvin HOP and Galvin La Chapelle; The Green Man in Chelmsford, and Jose Pizarro in Broadgate – they’re all very good. And there are other places like No.5 Hertford Street, which is brilliant, but you wouldn’t know it unless you’re a member. Their team’s world class – nothing’s too much for them.’
It’s these FOH teams, as well as the food they serve, which means London can, as Fred says, legitimately call itself ‘the gastronomy capital of the world.’ But, without a steady flow of talent coming through the ranks, how much longer can the city uphold its lofty status?
National Waiter’s Day takes place on the 16th May. For more info, visit https://nationalwaitersday.com/
Photos courtesy of Fred Sirieix