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This is perhaps the most important chapter in this book.
Not that the more detailed information about planning, specific venues, and so on isn’t valuable of course. But working well with all the various members of the ship’s service and culinary staff underlies everything, and will have the biggest impact on you having a safe and enjoyable dining experience.
While much of this may be common sense, it’s never a bad idea to be reminded of certain things, especially when going into an unfamiliar environment like a cruise ship. It also doesn’t hurt to go in with a realistic and well informed set of expectations.
From the beginning, you need to get into the mindset of thinking of the ship’s staff as your partners in safe and enjoyable dining. If you forgive the pun, it really needs to be a partnership.
This implies that just like the crew have their roles and responsibilities when it comes to your meals, you also have some important responsibilities. You can’t go and expect everything to be magically taken care of for you. It also means you need to work with the staff, and that neither side can do it alone. Everyone needs to realize what everyone else contributes (or, if the “partnership” pun wasn’t enough, what everyone brings to the table).
Despite all the “sir” and “madam” and at times absurdly obsequious deference that is an inherent part of the cruise ship atmosphere, the staff are not your servants. They need to be treated with respect, not talked down to.
While you can and should be polite and friendly, do respect the boundaries. Being genuinely interested in hearing about someone’s day, their job on the ship, their family or their home is one thing, but expecting staff to go hang out with you later is quite another. Ship’s staff have strict rules against fraternizing with guests.
The staff want you to have a very safe and enjoyable holiday, including your meals. Frankly, they wouldn’t last very long if that wasn’t the case. Most staff recognize that just like they work very hard when they’re on the ship, most of the guests they are taking care of work hard most of the year at home too, and this is their (your) all too brief chance to get away from that for a bit.
As one extremely helpful Maître d’ said to us, after dealing with some screw up, “you’re on your vacation, you shouldn’t have to deal with this kind of thing now”.
Looking at it pessimistically, take even the most jaded staff member who’s had the misfortune of been bombarded non-stop by several groups of extremely rude and demanding passengers (yes, it happens, and quite often, and makes me cringe every time). If you’re polite and respectful they’ll find it a relief to deal with you. At the very least, they are highly motivated to get a good review for themselves.
After communicating your dietary needs in the first place, practicing defensive eating is your most important responsibility.
You must always be on the lookout to ensure that the food you receive complies with your dietary needs. I’m not saying you need to be obsessing about this every minute of every day, but you do have to keep it in mind. If you’ve been on your diet for a while and sometimes eat outside your home, I’m sure this is second nature to you by now.
If ever in doubt, ask your server, being specific about particular items on the plate. If they are ever in doubt, ask the server to go back and check. If you’re still in doubt, ask to speak with the chef or (politely) send it back and get something else. Watch for signs of cross-contamination, especially at the buffet.
One mistake to be on the lookout for is an inadvertent swap, where the chefs made a modified dish for you, and in the fast paced environment, the waiter accidentally picks up a regular version of the dish, and someone else gets your specially modified one. Asking clarifying questions can help, e.g. “I expected this without any sauce; what’s in this one?”
Mistakes are going to happen, and the main thing is to catch them, preferably before they cause any real damage. Once caught, many are mistakes that everyone understands are mistakes, which can then easily be fixed.
When mistakes do happen, try to control how you react. Accusing people or adopting a complaining tone gets them on the defensive, and that isn’t a good starting point to get your issues resolved. Remember that the staff are there as your partners to help get things straightened out, not your adversaries. Together, agree on a plan to fix things. Slow things down so nobody gets into panic mode and makes more mistakes.
Sometimes, you may need to get a supervisor involved to help resolve the problem. Never hesitate to ask the person you’re dealing with to bring over a more senior staff member to “help”. But do try to honestly resolve the problem with the front-line staff first. You should also raise any recurring or “systems” issues with supervisors.
When speaking with supervisors, don’t cast blame, but explain what the underlying issue is. If you want a specific remedy from the supervisor, make that clear. If not, and you just want them to be aware of it so that it doesn’t happen to you or others in the future, make that clear too. Senior staff appreciate hearing these issues, because many guests don’t speak up; knowing what’s going on lets them help their staff.
Remember, the senior staff tend to be great problem solvers, even in the face of unreasonable or argumentative passengers. I reluctantly offer myself as “Exhibit A”…
After the nightmare flight hassles I talked about earlier traveling to a cruise departing Copenhagen, we ended up having exactly the same (major) mistakes made by the same server three days in a row. I’m pretty sure I lost it on the Maître d’ at that point, though half the frustration that I let out on him was from things that happened before we even got on the ship. Not my finest moment.
To his immense credit, he acknowledged my frustrations, and personally apologized. He clearly recognized the nature of the current problems, articulated the underlying root causes of them, proposed a plan to solve them in the future, and asked me if that plan was agreeable. The problems never recurred, and he was practically our best friend the rest of the trip, going well above and beyond, and turning what could have been two weeks of frustrations into an exceptional holiday. Without that intervention, that cruise line would have definitely lost two customers.
All of which leads me to talk about what to do when things go right, particularly when things go exceptionally well, exceeding your expectations.
Most importantly, be sure to sincerely thank the people involved. Everyone likes being recognized for their work.
Don’t hesitate to mention the staff member to their supervisor as well. It may take them by surprise, as they’re far more often used to dealing with complaints. On one cruise, we had a couple of bad experiences at the same lunch due to one waiter who was clearly outside his skill level dealing with special diets. We’d talked to the area’s supervisor that day about it. The next day we went for lunch there, and had a different waiter who did a fabulous job with our special needs. When I approached the same supervisor you could see him cringe, but he was very glad to hear about the staff member who had done such a good job, not to mention relieved there weren’t more problems!
As the two previous sections indicate, feedback to staff is best when it happens at the time, good or bad, on an ongoing basis. Telling supervisors about general issues or particular staff is important. In exceptional cases, like our Maître d’ who turned around our nightmare experience, we wrote a letter to his supervisor expressing our gratitude and the positive impact he had on our trip. We gave a copy to the Maître d’, who was very thankful, and told us those sorts of things make a big difference. He’d had something comparable happen once before, and the executive chef read out that letter to the entire restaurant staff, using it as an important teaching point about their role and the impact it can have on guests.
Finally, cruise lines ask you to fill out a guest questionnaire a couple of days before the end of your cruise, containing lots of “on a scale of poor to excellent” questions plus room for additional comments. If you had someone who made a positive difference to your experience on board, make sure to mention them by name in those comments. Those questionnaires are carefully scrutinized, and when staff names are mentioned it becomes part of their record, which affects things like the amount of time off they get, which given the crazy hours, is hugely important.
Finally, most cruises will provide you the opportunity to take a tour of the galley area, which is well worth doing. Not only is it interesting in its own right, it will give you a chance to meet (and thank) some of the behind-the-scenes crew who have helped you out, and give you a better understanding of the facilities and constraints they work under to prepare your meals, including how they deal with your special diet.