Luigi Cagnin, Restaurant Manager, The Ritz London

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 9th April 2015

Luigi Cagnin is restaurant manager of The Ritz, which achieved its first star in the Michelin Guide UK in 2016.

He started in the hospitality industry 16 years ago, now Luigi Cagnin is the restaurant manager for one of the most prestigious hotels in the world - The Ritz London.

Originally from Venice he learnt his trade in several five star hotels in Europe, all of which were steeped in history and proud to demonstrate classic service. He arrived in London ten years ago and he has been at The Ritz London ever since, winning the Master of Culinary Arts category in 2013.

The Staff Canteen spoke to him about table service and the classics, keeping all of his guests happy and The Ritz experience.

So, for all the aspiring waiters and waitresses out there, how do you end up as Restaurant Manager for The Ritz?

I put in a lot of time but it’s worth it – it’s The Ritz! I’m honoured and lucky to be here it’s not just any restaurant, it’s a theatre and a show every single day.

Michelin-starred The Ritz
Michelin-starred The Ritz

I went to catering college in Italy and then at 18 got a job in a five star hotel called Suvretta House in St. Moritz, Switzerland. This is where I was schooled in the old style and classical French service. All communications between the staff and the guests were made in French and the only way to communicate with the chef was in writing. He wanted to be the only one speaking in the kitchen and we had to write down everything in French. Even, if all we wanted was a bowl of spinach we had to write it down – working here I had to be 100% faultless because one spelling mistake in French was reason enough for chef not to give you that bowl of spinach! It was the very first time I faced the reality of this industry, and the message from the restaurant manager was ‘either we will make you or break you’. After this I moved to Germany to improve my linguistic skills – I didn’t want to go to England because I knew once I learnt English I would not go back and learn a third language. I spent three and a half years at Hotel Nassauer Hof in Wiesbaden, Germany – it has a Michelin-starred restaurant and it has held its star for over 30 years. Then from there I moved to The Ritz London.

You obviously have a wealth of experience, did you move to The Ritz as Restaurant Manager or did you have to work up to that role?

Michelin-starred The Ritz
Michelin-starred The Ritz

When I was in Italy I was assistant restaurant manager but when I moved to Switzerland I had to start as a commis and work my way up to head waiter. I did the same in Germany and when I arrived here I started again as a commis – hopefully it’s the last time!

It’s been ten years since you started can you still remember your first day in this iconic hotel?

The Ritz London has a reputation that is known worldwide. It exceeded my expectations and I picked up quickly that I was an ambassador for The Ritz. I felt confident because of the previous experience I’d had. I knew I had to start at the bottom again but I also knew I had to make a name for myself – I was lucky that the type of service and guest we have here is what I had experienced before.  I knew the guest would have high expectations which I would aim to exceed.

The Ritz London has its regulars – is it difficult to keep them all happy?

People come to The Ritz London for that once in a lifetime experience. We have standards and service styles to follow to make sure this is what they receive. But many of the guests have been regulars for decades and we have to adapt the experience for them, we can never let our standards slip and must always know their preferences.  There are hundreds of regulars and many of them have a table they consider theirs.  They say ‘the first time I dined here was my 18th birthday 50 years ago and I always sit here’. My hands are sometimes tied but then who am I to say no after 50 years?

You are often visited by royalty, politicians and other people in the public eye, do you ever get star struck?

The Ritz Restaurant Team
The Ritz Restaurant Team

We are well briefed and well prepared before their arrival, so by that point the knees have stopped shaking!  We treat these guests with the respect and the attention they deserve. We have had a lot of guests dine here that I would never have imagined I would meet in person.

How do you keep the traditions of The Ritz London alive in 2015?

We pride ourselves on the traditions and we still provide the same service as a hundred years ago. Table service is something we do every day, all the waiters wear tails – a lot of effort goes into preserving tradition. In the restaurant we prepare a lot of dishes at the table from carving the whole smoked salmon to creating the Caesar salad. At the moment we have a stuffed quail on the menu which we carve at the table. I really enjoy serving this as Executive Chef John Williams MBE is doing the hard job and then we are left to “show off”. It’s a wonderful dish, a whole quail, completely deboned but the skin is untouched. It’s filled with chicken mousse, foie gras and truffle. We carve the whole bird and we slice it in front of the guests so they can see the fillings. Then there’s Crepes Suzette which is crepes cooked in a caramel sauce and orange sauce. We have a trolley where we prepare the caramel sauce in front of the guest, add the butter, orange and lemon peel, then we warm the pancakes in this before adding Grand Marnier and Cognac. We flambé this in front of the guest and it becomes a dish which really sells itself.

Luigi Cagnin at Michelin-starred The Ritz
Luigi Cagnin at Michelin-starred The Ritz

In the ten years you’ve been here has The Ritz London changed at all?

We are here to preserve the tradition. We do not want to lose our heritage which is very precious to us and it makes us unique. But there have been some changes – our service had to speed up as guests wanted to be in and out more quickly. This is hard for us as sometimes we cannot give the full experience in such a short time. So carving at the table is for guests who want to spend time and they allow themselves time to do so. They want to sit at the table for a few hours. We have a lot of restaurants around us and, particularly at lunchtime, we have started to serve a set menu that guests are now used to finding, in fine dining establishments in London. Something that has not changed is the dress code in the restaurant but we have adapted it in The Rivoli Bar. When guests are going to The Rivoli Bar they want to be relaxed, they want more attention paid to the cocktail rather than their outfit. So they can now wear jeans in the bar but this is only allowed at breakfast in the restaurant.

Dress code in fine dining is something that is noticeably changing with people wanting to go out without getting dressed up. Will this become the case at The Ritz?

Our guests make an effort to dress for the occasion and they want everyone around them to do the same. The dining room is so beautiful it is lovely to see guests dressed accordingly. 

Michelin-starred The Ritz
Michelin-starred The Ritz

Talking about the younger generation how has The Ritz London adapted to the world of social media?

If people want to take a picture of the petit fours then we allow them to. We want good feedback on social media and we hope to meet and exceed all their expectations. We have a lot of interaction with guests on social media daily.

What about review sites such as TripAdvisor – do these have an impact on somewhere like The Ritz London?

Certainly, a huge amount of guests use that site when deciding where to dine out. It’s our duty to take care of diners and if we fail then we have to expect negative comments. Having said that I’ve dined in places that are rated low on TripAdvisor and I’ve had wonderful meals – then I’ve dined in restaurants in the top ten and it’s been nothing but a snack bar. All we want is a happy customer!

Would you encourage young people looking to get into the service industry to go down the classical route like yourself – or would you say it’s not for everybody?

It’s not for everybody – but I think that is a good thing.

Our team consists of different characters and levels of experience, working together to deliver a memorable experience for all clients.

As you do a lot at the table do you have a close relationship with the Chef and his team?

Indeed – we have to. They spend a lot of time preparing these dishes so we are instructed on how they should be presented to ensure we do it the way the Chef recommends. So, for example which cuts of the leg of lamb end up on the plate and how it is be presented. It may be a one waiter job or it may take four. Sometimes it can involve a lot of equipment and a lot of hands!

As Restaurant Manager are you still as hands on, are you still at the table preparing dishes?

Of course, my role focuses on the main operation of the restaurant and ensuring the serving process is smooth.  I am hands on with the serving of certain dishes which can require a range of specialist equipment, or to support my team.

Is it easy to tell if the guests want you to interact with them or not?

Our first task is to read the guest. We can usually tell if it is their first visit or if they are regulars to fine dining. They are all different, if it is a business lunch they want to order straight away, they do not want alcohol and they require a specific table – everything has to be quick with zero interaction between the waiter and the guests. Usually if they are staying with us they will come back with their wife in the evening and then I will get the feedback on how the lunch was, or I will get instructions on how the lunch tomorrow should be, likes and dislikes.

What made you enter the Master of Culinary Arts?

Michelin-starred The Ritz
Michelin-starred The Ritz

It is every waiter’s dream – certainly in this country it’s the highest accolade for people in the service industry. It’s something I’m very pleased exists because there are competitions for all other areas of the hospitality industry and often service is left out. These competitions are important especially for the next generation; they need to be challenged so they can succeed in this industry. It’s not just about smiling and being friendly while you carry a plate from one side of the room to the other – it’s not that easy. Winning and taking part really boosts confidence.

>>> Read more of Are You Being Served here

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 9th April 2015

Luigi Cagnin, Restaurant Manager, The Ritz London