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Can you describe the vision behind the specialty restaurants? What do they bring to the overall dining offering on the fleet? 

Jacques Van Staden: A key part of any cruise is the all-inclusive dining experience, offered in the main restaurants and buffet. What we envision with the specialty restaurants is to create a different experience from the main dining. Today, people want more options and choices, they also want to try new things. We want to create something really memorable for our guests and elevate the dining by providing different types of restaurants, with distinctive styles and ambiances. We have built each new restaurant around popular global cuisines that resonate with guests of all nationalities. From the USA we have the American-style Steakhouse – the Butcher’s Cut; From Asia first a sushi restaurant and then a teppanyaki grill– Kaito Sushi Bar and Kaito Teppanyaki, and more recently our new Indochine concept; for European we created L’Atelier Bistrot is inspired by French cuisine and for the Mediterranean we have the Ocean Cay fish restaurant. Our newest concept is from Latin America with HOLA! Tacos & Cantina. 

Stéphane Franchini: The specialty restaurants are detached from the all-inclusive aspect of the guest experience. This is because our goal is for guests to have more than “just a meal” and to have an overall gastronomic experience with that feeling running throughout all the service sequences and visual identity. In essence, we are creating a “brand” of restaurant, that our guests will come to recognise on our ships and will know that they will receive a consistent high-quality experience on board each ship. 

Where do the ideas come from for each new restaurant?

Stéphane Franchini: It is a collaborative effort spearheaded by our Executive Chairman Pierfrancesco Vago, who is essential in the vision as well as the decision-making. We start with a collective brainstorm for new ideas for a new ship, then try to understand whether the concept can fit with our target demographics, the planned itineraries and where the ship will be deployed. When the concept is approved by all parties, we start putting together a brief for the designers other parties to bring the vision to life. Our ethos is to maintain strong attention to detail in all aspects. For each specialty dining concept, we have a very strong pool of designers and architects who are supporting us in the realisation of our project and every single aspect of the experience is planned from the décor and uniforms for the crew, the chinaware and glassware through to the paper that the menu is printed on. 

In 2016, you started to introduce new specialty dining concepts that we now see across many of your ships. Talk us through some of these concepts and what makes them so popular.

Stéphane Franchini: First, we can talk about Butcher’s Cut, one of our most popular specialty dining concepts. The American-style steakhouse offers a traditional menu, complemented by an extensive wine list from Europe and the New World – featuring stand-out American, South American and European wines. This restaurant concept is designed to celebrate the skill of the master-butcher, serving the best quality specialty cuts of beef, cooked to perfection in the open front kitchen to add to the overall experience. And topped off with well-trained crew who deliver an excellent standard of service. In essence, the Butcher’s Cut delivers all the aspects of what a good steakhouse needs to offer. This concept has proven so popular that we have launched this restaurant on other ships in our fleet, not just our new builds.

Jacques Van Staden: Kaito Teppanyaki also stands out as a very popular concept amongst our guests, because it offers an interactive experience. Interactivity is a strong feature that we hope to continue developing with our new specialty restaurants. In each specialty dining concept, we are looking into how to create an overall experience that resonates with our guests as they dine in our specialty restaurants.

What new specialty restaurants will be available on the Company’s upcoming ships?

Stéphane Franchini: Our flagship MSC Virtuosa features five specialty restaurants including two new specialty dining concepts: HOLA! Tacos & Cantina and Indochine. HOLA! Tacos & Cantina is the first such restaurant in our fleet, offering a relaxed and friendly atmosphere for families and friends. The street food dining concept offers a selection of Latin American and Mexican-inspired dishes and drinks to be easily shared and enjoyed.

The Indochine restaurant is a new original concept based on savoury Vietnamese classics with a French twist, combining two delicious culinary heritages. The menu will include a host of vegetarian and vegan options, as well as a multitude of tasty options that can be served family style, to share amongst friends.

Jacques Van Staden: I think World Class is going to set us apart as this is the next step in our evolution with a lot of new specialty restaurants to come. MSC World Europa is the first ship from a new prototype and this has given us a blank canvas to create new dining offerings. We are looking to set a new benchmark for fine dining at sea and there will be a strong focus on artisan and craft products, particularly in the bars and lounges.

What was the process behind developing HOLA! Tacos & Cantina - in terms of design of the experience and menu creation? Why introduce a Latin-American inspired restaurant combined with a street food dining concept?

Jacques Van Staden: For HOLA! Tacos & Cantina, we wanted to create the atmosphere of an authentic Mexican Cantina. We had many discussions over the menu, and we knew that the Mexican concept could be popular for our guests, as it is centred around short meals and can be easily shared

The entire principle of the concept is based on providing a casual atmosphere with an affordable price point. As the overall blueprint of the restaurant layout was already defined, we knew we had long counters to work with that allowed us a unique opportunity to make the experience interactive. Everything is done in front of the guest: from the salsa, to the all-new Mexican Ice Cream Taco bar, to the bar and guacamole station.

To make the experience even more fun, guests can choose to make their own guacamole at their table, with a pestle and mortar. We also wanted the dining experience to be informative, highlighting top tequila and mezcal varieties, since these are drinks that are not necessarily well-known to all guests and they can feel safe in in choosing from our selection. We also wanted the concept to be very flexible so guests could choose to dine in or take out, according to their wishes.

Can you also explain why you chose to create an Indochine Restaurant, a fusion of Vietnamese and French cuisine? How have you worked to make this an authentic experience?

Stéphane Franchini: When MSC Grandiosa came into service in 2019, the Atelier Bistrot was the fourth Parisian-style bistrot we rolled out - following MSC Seaside, MSC Seaview and MSC Bellissima. When it came to MSC Virtuosa, we looked at how we could extend this French dining concept a step further. The strategy was to develop a type of cuisine that would appeal to a wider range of guests. Because of the existing Art Deco design in the blueprint of l’Atelier Bistrot, as well as the strong appeal of Asian flavours to our guests, finding a way to marry these two culinary heritages seemed the natural choice. We came to the conclusion of the Indochine concept, because it highlights the flavours and variety of Vietnamese cuisine with a French touch.

During the benchmarking phase, we realised the potential popularity of Vietnamese cuisine amongst our guests and looked at what flavours are available at the moment, combined with what our existing layout allowed us to implement. The Indochine restaurant does not really offer true ‘fusion’ cuisine, but rather a selection of Vietnamese classics with some French dishes as well, this ensures we offer a very strong authenticity.

Can you give us a hint of new concepts and cuisines that you are hoping to develop in the future?

Stéphane Franchini: We have a brand-new approach to specialty dining concepts when it comes to our upcoming World Class ships. We will try different sets of flavours, service sequences and revolutionary concepts that feature more fine dining and creativity. We are in constant pursuit of new and exceptional experiences, as well as taking our guests on a gourmet journey of discovery through international cuisine.

Jacques Van Staden: We are also moving towards developing all our dining concepts in-house. We are continuously challenging ourselves. How do we take that has been around and, without necessarily recreating the wheel, really push the envelope to recreate a gourmet experience? For the upcoming ships, we are looking into how to create experiences for guests that they don’t expect. This is exactly the exciting approach we want to follow for the upcoming luxury brand as well.

Find out more about Jacques and Stephane:

Jacques Van Staden: I have worked as a hospitality expert across fine dining establishments and casual restaurants, hotel and cruise for more than 30 years. Most recently, I was President and CEO of the Miami-based JVS Culinary Group, providing visionary creative F&B consulting services for a wide range of hospitality entities. Prior to JVS Culinary Group, I served as Vice President of Food & Beverage and Master Chef for Celebrity Cruises. In this position, I was directly responsible for transforming Celebrity Cruises' culinary footprint. In 2019, I joined MSC Cruises as VP of F&B and I am leading all Food & Beverage activities, as well as the culinary strategy across our global organization.

Stéphane Franchini: I am trained as a chef and spent the first part of my career as an international Chef – gaining long-standing experiences from China to Marrakech, Morocco, the USA and Brazil. My last role as a Chef was when I was a Group Chef for Park Plaza, a hotel company in the UK. I was working on business concept development and overseeing the company’s kitchen. Most recently, before joining MSC Cruises, I was VP Food & Beverage Europe FRHI: Raffles – Fairmont – Swissôtel, which are three ultra-luxury, luxury and business hotel brands. We had over 60 hotels worldwide and I was covering all the aspects of these brands for F&B in Europe. Then, I joined MSC Cruises in 2016 with the launch of MSC Meraviglia, with a new agenda to revamp the approach and the vision behind the specialty restaurants for our MSC Cruises fleet.