West End Host Extraordinaire
In an age of anonymous restaurant managers where to be invisible is the aim, Fernando Peire is from the school of restaurateurs who remembers your face; once you have a table at The Ivy or the club upstairs, you will be treated with respect and as much deference as the Hollywood star on the next table
Interview by Elizabeth Moore
When Fernando Peire is in The Club at the Ivy, his personal West End domain, or even on a pavement walking his beloved Schnauzer, you can feel him before you see him. He compacts more energy into his body than ten more boring humans, and when he approaches you for a conspiratorial chat, you have to stand your ground as if against the Mistral, that most French of winds, warm and exotic. He talks focused only on you for that moment, as if he is going to impart the most amusing or wicked anecdote and you are the only person lucky enough to hear it. It is at once charming and intoxicating, and the starry members of the Club at the Ivy, who have their choice of company, vie for his attention. It’s evident that down the years the customers at the several restaurants he has worked in have had their evenings made complete by a table visit or a personal hello from the man himself.
In an age of anonymous restaurant managers where to be invisible is the aim, Fernando is from the school of restaurateurs who remember your face, pick out your table, and get up from a meeting to come and check how you are. He also has superhuman EQ, apparently able to sense when you’re having a bad day, and plink himself into it like an Alka-Seltzer tablet and put the fizz back in. He also seems to be able to pass on the magic to his staff. They are his secret weapon and he trains them in the way things are done at The Ivy, never intrusive but always friendly and attentive. The highlight of a meal or a drink or a meal at the Club for me is when Noah, a particularly charming waiter who looks about 15 is on duty as he epitomises perfect service and I always look forward to a chat with him. This has been a recurring theme over the years, watching staff go on to greater heights and achievements mentored by Fernando.
It turns out that we have a lot in common. Fernando was a Francophile even as a boy, loving all things Gallic from cinema to literature and as is still evident now, he is clearly a bright and intelligent man, with a Spanish mother who talked to him in her native language, and his drive to succeed was evident even as a student. He was destined for Oxford to read French and when he explains that he didn’t get in you can sense even now the disappointment. I feel it was entirely Oxford University’s loss. Instead, he went up to Manchester to read Law. It did not work out, as he had already found his passion, France and all things French.
Even before his Oxbridge exams Fernando had been working in the catering trade from the age of 16 in a local restaurant, a French one, naturally, owned by a friend of his mother’s, bought with a win on the horses and called L’Escargot after the Grand National winner. It may not have been the Soho eaterie that is the oldest French restaurant in London but nonetheless it was a great place to cut his teeth on everything from chopping onions to sweeping floors. Fernando is clearly a work lover to this day, and by the time he left for university in Manchester he had progressed from the kitchen to the bar and was virtually running the place when the proprietor was away. One of the many downsides of his short-lived Law studies turned out to be that you couldn’t work while doing the degree, and you couldn’t even bend the rules with a part time job in a bar as most of the dons were practising lawyers. His delight with the switch to French and the prospect of time in Paris is palpable when he talks about it all these years later.
In fact, the day we chatted, he was bubbling over with delight over a French house purchase. As French houses go, it really is a garlic loving, snail eating piece of real estate, close to the coast, Cognac, Bordeaux and a Francophile’s fantasy. We talked houses, and the cost of roofing and the memories of books and films that Fernando loves, from Les Enfants Terribles to his insightful comments on the film Knife in the Water (Plein Soleil) and the Alain Delon performance which led to Jude Law’s in The Talented Mr.Ripley. I discovered that our shared passions for wine, France, restaurants, theatre and film are almost identical, and the one abiding thread for both of us is the Ivy Restaurant in West Street and now the Club at the Ivy above it, which was once my father’s office, next to Charles Forte’s office, which made the restaurant below my colouring room and canteen from about the age of five. So, all these years later, I sit and chat to Fernando in the same room where my father once worked, small world, Fernando’s world.
Fernando first worked at The Ivy when Chris Corbin and Jeremy King took it over in 1990. By then, he had run various of Manchester’s hugely successful Steak and Kebab restaurants whose name belied the customer base of footballers and actors who frequented them, not to mention the fabulous food and famous wine list which by now Fernando not only understood but adored. Post university he was offered backing in a Chelsea eaterie called The Left Bank, so found himself at the age of 26 as the co-owner of a building in Chelsea. Heady stuff had the purchase not coincided with the 1987 stock market crash and with massively high interest rates which peaked at 15 per cent. In these trying conditions the restaurant limped on for three years with Fernando at the helm, doing everything humanly possible to keep it going until an empathetic customer sensed something was wrong and took Fernando out for lunch with his accountant. Persuaded that carrying on was only going to make things worse, Fernando sold his share of the restaurant to his partner for one pound sterling. The striking thing about listening to this story, is his complete clarity when he looks back at this time, and his belief that it was this moment of failure that was the most formative and seminal of his adult life. In my experience very few people react to this kind of experience in a positive way but his perception at seeing this downturn as the foundation of his future successes is for me a mark of his depth as a character.
So by the time he arrived at Chris Corbin’s office door looking for a job he already had experience in a ‘society eaterie’ and had developed the style he keeps to this day, of treating everyone as they deserved to be treated, with a little bit of special attention for the starriest guests for good measure. The restaurants he admired were of this ilk too, particularly The Caprice. He has always run a democratic ship, and the fact that once you have a table at The Ivy even today, you will be treated with respect and as much deference as the Hollywood star on the next table, owes a lot to his philosophy.
He now runs the Club upstairs along the same lines, and it has the best atmosphere of any establishment I’ve ever belonged to. Brilliant members’ events spring from Fernando’s hands-on, interested approach. Talks on the Tudors, interviews and panel discussions over breakfast to Intimate at the Ivy evenings with stars of stage and screen sprinkle the calendar along with wonderful parties and his personal involvement is everywhere. Step into the most beautiful glass lift in London and you are whisked up to a constant buzz, with an ambiance that Fernando describes as ‘the purr of a Bentley.’ A party at the Club at the Ivy is always more fun than any you could throw at home. Not for nothing did I launch my book here like so many others looking for the best.
Richard Caring, the Ivy’s billionaire owner seems to have given Fernando free rein and his years of experience with the great, good and glitzy have created a clientele that would be the envy of any dining room anywhere. There is always a feeling that Fernando’s life could have and perhaps should have if there was any justice taken a different turn; he is more informed about most subjects than the members. He understands and appreciates art and was for a while the host of a television show called The Hotel Inspector which was a rather better version of Gordon Ramsay’s later Kitchen Nightmares. All I would say on the subject is that life is about personal evolution, and Fernando is about as evolved a human as I have been lucky enough to encounter. I hope he knows how valued he is and what a delight he brings to his emporium of relaxation. That in itself is no mean feat, and no unimportant a task, and one for which countless customers are grateful.
So there you have it, naughty anecdotes about his friends and clients have been removed for libel purposes, and Fernando breezes on, lighting up days and evenings and filling any room he is in with laughter and old fashioned bonhomie. He is a delight, and long may he reign over the West End that loves him so well.