Mateo Saina, the charismatic maitre D’ from ‘First Dates Ireland’, tells Esther McCarthy about the loves of his own life this Valentine’s Day
He’s the charismatic Croatian whose broad smile welcomes scores of nervous lovebirds through the doors of First Dates Ireland. And nobody is more pleased than Maitre D’ Mateo Saina when people find romance on the smash hit RTÉ show.
Now Mateo has told how he is smitten with two very special ladies in his life — long-term love Vjerana, and their little girl, Isabelle Luna, who arrived into the world just eight months ago.
He says it has transformed his life in the best of ways. “She’s eight months. It’s just brilliant,” he tells me.
“I was scared before it happened, all of the this ‘oh your life is gonna change’. Yeah, it’s gonna change, but it changes for the better. It gives you more structure, it forces you to plan for the future no matter what. Things don’t faze me no more. My lady is back to work so two days a week I have the little one and I’m the happiest man. She’s a funny, smiley little person, beautiful.”
Though the young family have made Ireland their home, the couple grew up in the same neighbourhood in Istria, Croatia. The stunning Adriatic peninsula, near the Italian city of Trieste, has a varied history. The region was part of the Austrian Empire before becoming part of Italy. Ceded to Yugoslavia following WW2, it became part of Croatia following the breakup of that region.
“For us we don’t care in Istria, as long as you let us do our thing, it doesn’t matter who is in power. People are really relaxed. We have a lot of Italian population, and people are just chilled out. That’s why they call us Italians.”
Though First Dates Ireland has made him a familiar face, in Irish restaurant circles Mateo was already well known. His front-of-house skills have led to him working at the coalface of the Irish restaurant industry along such established names as Kevin Thornton and Ronan Ryan.
It was a trade he first fell in love with while doing national service in his homeland. “In the army I was waiter to the head men. I was serving the colonel.
"Every weekend I would go home, I was half an hour away from my home. It gave you a structure for life. You need to get up, you need to do this and this. And after I said: ‘I’m a man now’.”
Like many who work in the restaurant industry, for a time Mateo embraced it as an opportunity to see the world. He welcomed diners on the ski-slopes of Austria, in the glamorous eateries of Amsterdam and in the sunshine of an Italian summer. But after spending three years in Dublin, he longed to return — and has now based himself in Ireland for over a decade.
In the early days, he worked in such top establishments as Browne’s, Town Bar and Grill and Thornton’s on the Green. Kevin Thornton, regarded by many as one of the finest chefs in the country, closed his doors a year after losing his Michelin Stars.
Mateo says while he loves the industry, the pressure on restaurants to evolve and survive amid huge competition and financial challenges can be “brutal” and that Thornton, who now runs his own business specialising in bespoke dining events and masterclasses, is missed in Irish restaurant circles.
Mateo is currently working on La Cucina in the heart of the city’s South William Street, an authentic and intimate Italian restaurant set in the very special surroundings of Powerscourt Townhouse.
He feels very fond of and connected to Irish people, and finds a common ground with the laid-back attitude of his own nationality.
“The Irish are brilliant, that’s why First Dates is so popular, because Irish people made it. That’s what it is, the funny side of the Irish people. They have this aura about them. I wouldn’t stay for 13-plus years if I didn’t feel that it was worth it, that the people are worth it.”
Ratings are higher than ever on this, the fourth season of the quirky and often touching show, where those looking for love are paired on blind dates with potential partners.
He and the other restaurant staff have become very much part of the fabric and personality of the show, checking in with daters to see how they’re getting along, providing encouraging words to nervous newcomers, and in one instance, prompting a man who had forgotten his date’s name.
“At this stage we are mates, we go out for dinners together. We’ve got two new guys now and they’re cool. We have a good team.” Still, their main focus is on the service — the show is recorded as live and the staff have to deliver a full service on the day.
As the first person a dater meets when they come through the restaurant doors, he is persistently and noticeably kind, encouraging and complimenting nervous arrivals.
“This is the way my mother and my father raised me, simple as that. It’s human nature that somebody’s walking in, and you see that they’re nervous. Does it cost you anything to give a nice kind word? It doesn’t. I live by the moral that it’s just easier to be nice. Let’s not dramatise where there’s no need.”
He has all but stopped guessing who’s clicking with who, having been wrong many times.
“You don’t know, because you don’t know what their preferences are until they say yes or no. It’s about a style, about a thing that puts you in a loving mood.
“There’s a famous songwriter in Croatia, and he says: Who am I to tell you you’re wrong? Who am I to wake you out of your golden dreams? It’s for other people to decide. We’re all different.” He comes across as a complete natural on camera, yet he says he felt daunted at the prospect of the role when it first came up.
“The owners of Coco TV (the show’s producers) knew my boss in the Green Hen, Paul. They remained friends and they knew he had a restaurant so they reached out to him for advice and recommendations. At the time he said to me: ‘Listen, you’re going to get a phone call — just go with it.’ He didn’t even tell me what it was. They called me and I said: ‘No I wouldn’t do TV, that’s not my gig. I do this for a living, I work in the catering industry. The TV would be a disaster for me and for you!’ I never imagined myself on TV. It was never in my head.”
In the early days, he would think about what audiences would make of him, perfectly understandable as a newcomer to the format. “If you have that kind of attitude you don’t come across as natural. What put me at ease is that I do this for a living, so for me there’s no need, be yourself and off you go. Do whatever what you do in the restaurant, just tone it down, because I’m a wild cat in the restaurant!
“It’s structured differently. In the restaurant it’s about the food and the service, but here it’s about a laugh and relaxation. Obviously it has to be good, but it’s not the main focus. It puts my job completely at ease.”
Nothing make he and his colleagues happier than when two dates find a connection that leads to friendship or romance, especially older daters.
“Young couples, they can stand up and keep on going without blinking. For older couples it’s a little bit harder. Normally who I’d gravitate towards are older couples. They put more faith, I would say, into the date, than younger ones do, because younger couples have their whole lives ahead to find someone. For older couples it could be a unique, cool chance to really, really find somebody. Every time I see couples in their fifties, sixties, or above, for me this is brilliant.”