Cyrus Marfatia started as chef de cuisine aboard Carnival Cruise Line’s second ship, the Carnivale. More than 35 years later, the industry still has some surprises for Marfatia, now the line’s vice president of culinary and dining. The most recent: Carnival cruisers aren’t enthused by Your Time Dining.
“One thing we’ve found over and over again is a lot of our guests are gravitating towards familiarity. They want to have their own waiter. They want to eat at a certain time every day,” he said. “A certain segment of our guests, a majority I would say, would prefer to have assigned dining. So while other lines may go to all open seating, we would be very resistant to it, because we’ve seen that when we have done so our guests have been very resistant to it. It has not been accepted well by our guests. They want the bond that is created between our service team and the guest.”
The trend runs counter to the casual, come-as-you-are industry evolution that Carnival’s Fun Ships helped introduce. It certainly caught Marfatia off guard.
“It actually did. On some of the newer ships, we were leaning on the open-service model and shrinking the assigned seating. But from what we’ve learned on those ships we struggled during the reservation process and booking as we have to disappoint those guests who want assigned seatings. So with the next generation of ships, from the Mardi Gras and on, we’ll reverse course.”
Some things will never change. “Lobster will always be popular,” Marfatia said. But passengers are eating less carbohydrates and red meat than in decades past. “When I joined, it was predominantly beef; and fish was a very, very low percentage. Now the playing field is very level between fish, seafood, and meat. People are more adventurous than they were 15 years ago, wanting to try new food, new cuisine.”
On land and sea, what was once exotic has become common place, he said. “We have sushi on almost every ship, whether it’s a sit-down restaurant or a walk-up-and-pick-up window, and it’s popular.”
Likewise, the Japanese-themed Bonsai Teppanyaki restaurants have become extremely popular, Marfatia said. Unfortunately, it requires a unique galley space. “So we cannot go and take advantage of its popularity by retrofitting the ships because it would be very cost prohibitive,” he said. “That makes it so the only option is for ships going forward to have them. So now Horizon and Panorama will have them, and from Mardi Gras onwards every ship will have them.”
Demand is high for familiar dishes from familiar faces. The Guy Fieri partnership has expanded in recent years to include Guy’s Burger Joint, and Guy’s Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que Smokehouse. New culinary partnerships with celebrity chef Emeril Lagassé and basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal are right on brand: They have decades of popularity; they’re affable and approachable; and, Marfatia said: “They’re a pleasure to deal with. That’s important for the relationship.”
Emeril’s Bistro on the new Mardi Gras will be an additional charge but the Big Chicken on Carnival Radiance will be free. Marfatia said guests instinctively know what should be extra and what ought to be included in the ticket price.
“The guest’s satisfaction and value are always the primary drivers, so any decision is based on those two major principles. Amongst that, with any new offer or anything that we try to do our first focus is to offer more or equally better value and keep it as inclusive – so as part of the cruise,” he said.
One of the biggest problems to feeding the massive fleet is staffing. Every week, 80 people sign off and another 80 come on each vessel. Some are going on vacation or quick break between contracts. Others are at the end of a contract and not returning. And just like shoreside employees, people may leave unexpectedly for some emergency or unforeseen life event. “We need to make sure we have 80 replacing the 80 signing off,” Marfatia said. “People in culinary and dining are not plug and play. We need to train them.” It isn’t easy. Not only is there an industry-wide increase in demand as new ships float out, competition is increasing in countries where crew are often sourced.
“The inflationary pressures are there every year, be it the raw food, or the supplies, or the labor,” he said. “We need to balance all those three pressures without affecting the product because the ticket price is what it is. That’s a matter of market demand and supply.”
Other problems are more fun. The new Mardi Gras will have more than 6,000 hungry passengers. “It’s going to be a monster,” Marfatia joked. “Not in a bad sense, but it’s going to be a big ship. We’re excited and planning for it.” Far larger than any previous Carnival newbuild, he and other department leaders need to make sure dining and entertainment options are balanced, and foot traffic can flow in a logical way.