Interview: the maître Ciro Cinque

In the calm Yacht Club restaurant “L’Étoile” on board of MSC Fantasia we had the chance to meet the maître Ciro Cinque. He has worked for twenty years in the Company and spent ten of them being the chief of one of the most important areas for the proper operation of a cruise ship, so he had a lot to tell.

How did you start your career on board cruise ships?

I boarded for the first time in 1997 and the ship was MSC Melody. I was waiter assistant then and little by little during the years I built my career, from base boy to maître assistant until I reached my current occupation, which I’ve performed with passion for ten years. At the beginning I decided to board and work on cruise ships in order to gain experience to add on my curriculum, in case I would have needed it for a future occupation. But I was given the opportunity to stay at MSC and it’s been twenty years since I decided to stay.

What is your specific assignment and what kind of specific preparation is required for your occupation?

Carrying out my assignment requires a great working experience, which means you should “live” the ship; you should get to know all of it industriousness. I attended a chartered accountant school and not a catering college; nevertheless I can say I’m satisfied with what I have, as I gained the greatest catering experience aboard and in hotel restaurants all over Europe. Therefore I’m convinced that the best school you could attend is the one made of practice, and obviously you should be lucky to work side by side with really professional people, so that you could learn a trade. I am not saying school isn’t important because it plays an essential role, but in my opinion it is practice on a working place that makes the difference. In fact, theory seems to be a little bit less valuable if it doesn’t join practice. Try to imagine me explaining something complicated without giving you a realistic demonstration or application of it; it will be hard to understand what I mean.

You depend on both the restaurant and the buffet. Is the management of these two areas different?

No, there is no difference between buffets and restaurants because their management is identical. However I must say I need the help of five maître assistants to check everything on this ship; each on-board restaurant has a maître assistant, including the buffet and that of the Yacht Club. Moreover, one of the main restaurants is arranged on two decks so it needs a double check. Anyway the assistants refer to me, like the others 286 members of the crew do.

There are a lot of passengers aboard a cruise ship. Which are the most critical moments during the day and what are the problems one may have?

The ship docking at the harbour or departing from it during lunchtime represents the greatest difficulty you could encounter because in that lapse all the passengers, both those already boarded and the new ones, go to the restaurants or to the buffet simultaneously; so it is no surprise to find them really crowded. I say it is no surprise because in about an hour nearly three thousands people approach catering areas and it’s easy to imagine the inconvenience of those moments. It should be avoided making cruise ships arrive or depart at 1.00 p.m. but I understand it is almost impossible due to the docking availability for stopovers. However, we always manage to face difficulties and to contain the inflow of guests. Moreover it seems we have a supporter during these critical lapses: the variety of nationalities. In fact, passengers coming from different cultures have different lunchtimes too and the more foreigners we have, the easier the work is for us. For example, Italians tend to have lunch at 1 p.m. while the Spanish usually go to restaurants at 3 p.m.

Tables’ assignment is a fundamental issue. How do you face it and what is the parameter that makes you place some passengers all together?

Initially the main office in Naples gives us information taken from travel agencies, such as the lunchtime chosen by the guests or their preferences about whom they would like to share meals with. It is easier to assign a guest to a specific table if we have lots of information about him/her. We sometimes hear people talking about what a travel agency has promised or told them, but if they don’t let us know in time we are not able to satisfy them. It is also really important when a cruise is booked. There are people who book a cabin a week before the departure and then demand a table of four; this is an almost impossible request to accommodate because we assign tables gradually and therefore they are established in advance, so the assortment of table seats is limited if you book your cruise a week before boarding. We take into account the Experience, too. The privileges one has depend on the Experience a guest chooses: Yacht Club, Aurea, Fantastica and Bella. This is not a way of discriminating who pays a little less by booking a Bella Experience, for example, but the Experiences have different prices and we think it is fair to give a little more to guests who pay more. In conclusion, you have the possibility to choose with a Bella Experience as well, but your choice will be subject to that of higher Experiences.

Have you ever received requests regarding specific meals or off-the-menu dishes? For example, parents asking for baby food? Are you used to accomplish those requests?

Our priority is to please passengers always and in any case, but we have to take into account our limits and to ponder accurately what the guest is asking. Baby food, such as vegetables purees or small pasta in soup, is always available if it has been previously planned. In fact we could have problems if the passenger has not warned the travel agency in time, which in turn should forward the request to MSC. In this case we could not be able to satisfy his/her need. On the other hand, simple off-the-menu demands can be easily accomplished if the pantry is provided with other foods in addition to those expected on the standard menu. But as I said before, we try to please everyone and if we receive a particular request, the following day we supply the pantry while the ship is docked.

In your opinion, how important is being fast and careful while serving tables?

It is extremely important and I dare to say it is a fundamental feature of on-board service. Nobody wants to wait too much while sitting at the table, especially if the lapse of time between the courses is too long. Almost everyone would like to eat within fifteen minutes but no one usually understands we have a schedule to follow, above all when the ship is full. Our cooks prepare meals for nearly two thousands passengers three times a day; moreover, they have to consider cooking times, so that meals can arrive at tables well dished out and as hot as possible. Our courses are not precooked or prepared in advance; they have to be cooked at the moment and this is what really matters for MSC. I’ve been working here for twenty years and I can say we have always served high quality products to passengers. This requires an extraordinary care and customers know it perfectly, they appreciate it too but it happens to deal with people who complain about how much they have to wait before eating. In general we assume that in order to guarantee the appropriate service, the right lapse of time between the courses is of an hour and a half.

Does the arrangement of the hall change depending on the on-board passengers’ nationality, or depending on seasons and destinations?

Yes, it could happen. My last cruise reached China (MSC Lirica, ed.) and we had to change our way of serving tables because of Chinese’s different costumes and habits. Now, as MSC Lirica is dedicated exclusively to the local market (i.e. Far East) we must adapt ourselves to their diet and costumes. It is the same if a ship boards Americans, who have needs completely different from those of Europeans’. Then it is necessary to make some adjustments depending on both the seasons and the placement of the ship.

Would you like to tell us a fun event or an anecdote that happened to you while being on board?

Passengers’ requests are often incredibly absurd so it is not easy to choose just one! For example, they usually ask if the ship crew goes ashore in the evening or if there is a lift that goes from bow to stern…