Deluxe cruise line Oceania has a well-deserved reputation for high-quality dining, branding itself “the finest cuisine at sea.” Last year, they also made a big deal about their new vegan menus and took that opportunity to remind people of their gluten-free and other options. So does reality match the hype?

Not exactly. My wife and I were unfortunately disappointed during a recent 14-day northern Europe cruise on Marina. We both have multiple dietary restrictions, which is one reason we frequently cruise. While some things went surprisingly well, overall we found the culinary experience more limiting and frustrating than on mainstream or premium lines. Worse, this trip had at least one epic failure that we’ve never experienced on any of the dozen or so cruises we’ve been on.

In this in-depth post, I’ll introduce Oceania and its approach to special diets and then share our experiences onboard our cruise. Both point to staffing problems (which happen everywhere) but also system-level issues that reveal deeper problems and misconceptions. While every ship, voyage, and passenger experience is different, and may well be flawless, many of these concerns are more than one-offs. Oceania needs to seriously step it up to even match industry norms in this area, let alone exceed them. I’ll provide some recommendations to suggest how that could happen.

Background

Ocean cruise lines are roughly classified into four categories: mainstream, premium, deluxe and luxury. There are various differences as you move up the categories, not the least of which is price. Oceania fits in the niche ‘deluxe’ category. It offers smaller ships, more inclusions and fewer cheesy upsells (photos, art, etc.) than mainstream or premium lines. Passengers are somewhat older, wealthier and more travelled. Still, it’s not the more intimate yet exquisite experience of the luxury lines (or so I’ve heard) that have a price tag to match.

And then there’s the dining experience, which Oceania prides itself on, and is used as a key differentiator in their positioning. French celebrity chef Jaques Pepin, their ‘executive culinary director,’ has a prominent place in their marketing and product offerings. Daily menus at their ‘Grand’ main dining room feature fois gras, caviar, truffles, and choice meats, with the same dishes available in their buffet. Multiple specialty restaurants (Italian, Asian, French, etc.) offer uniform gourmet menus at no extra charge.

Like other cruise lines, Oceania has had to deal with the increasing need for special diets, for medical or other reasons. It’s assumed that vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, diabetic, kosher, nut-free and other diets can be accommodated. To their credit, in 2017 Oceania made a big deal of launching new vegan menus as well as providing new options like a vegan juice and smoothie bar. This effort was recognized by PETA and received broad coverage in the industry.

My wife and I cruise because we find it easier to deal with our special diets that way than finding suitable restaurants at each new locale. We mostly travel on the premium lines (e.g. Celebrity), and have gone once each on Oceania and competitor Azamara previously. I’m mostly vegan (though will do seafood once in a while) and get very sick from dairy or wheat. My wife gets severe migraines from gluten, dairy, soy and nuts, though she does eat seafood, meat, poultry, etc.

So can a cruise line rooted in traditional French cheese, butter and meat really drink the vegan Kool-Aid? And how well does a line with a decided older demographic deal with allergies and diets more common in younger people?

Specialty Diet Process on Oceania

Oceania’s approach to specialty diets is similar to that used by other cruise lines but also differs in important ways. To simplify, we’ll focus mostly on what you’d expect from dinners in the main (‘Grand’) dining room.

Advance notice. As with other lines, passengers should notify the cruise line of any special dietary needs well in advance (90 days). It’s always a good idea, even if your restrictions are fairly routine, e.g. ovo-lacto vegetarian. The theory is the ship will be notified and all your needs automatically are taken care of. Not really of course.

This trip on Oceania handled this part incredibly well in two ways. First, the information I emailed on both our specialty diets actually made it correctly to the ship. That may be a first for us. Usually, it’s either not passed on to the ship, it’s incomplete, or it’s partially or entirely incorrect. I’m still bewildered why this is normally a problem in this day and age. So kudos to Oceania on that front.

Second, we’re used to getting on board and on our own accord finding the Maître d’ to inform them of our needs (or correct their file) and discuss their procedures. Instead, we arrived at our stateroom to find letters confirming our specialty diets and outlining procedures. It also identified a particular head waiter who served as point person for special diets onboard. He called not long afterwards to confirm arrangements and address any questions. Again, not rocket science, but Oceania taking this initiative is not something we’d ever experienced before.

Menus. Vegetarian items (ovo-lacto) are noted on the regular dining room menu, and I am pretty sure there was at least one vegetarian entree every night. There is also a separate vegan menu available for the asking, also changing daily. More on that later.

Meal selection. All cruise lines we’ve been on use some variation of pre-ordering the day before. That way, something can be sorted out and ingredients available when you actually arrive for your meal. On other lines, the head waiter or Maître d’ drops by at the end of dinner to provide the next day’s menu, and then returns a few minutes later to take the order.

Oceania does it a bit differently. Menus are sent to your stateroom two nights before. You write on them which dishes you want, and drop them off at the dining reservations desk (or a waiter) the next morning. On Marina at least, the person staffing the dining reservation desk entered them into the computer (presumably to advise the kitchen in advance). The dining room host gets a copy of the information in the computer (including all dietary requirements) along with the menu you scribbled your request on. These are both passed along to wait staff when you arrive.

This method has its pluses and minuses. One plus is that if you’re booked into a specialty restaurant, that’s the menu sent to your stateroom. Very seamless. On the negative side, there’s no real interaction with the staff about the menu items or opportunities to ask questions. You lose the expertise of the head waiters who know the menus and can proactively offer choices to meet your needs and preferences. Without that interaction, your meal will still be adjusted to fit your dietary needs. However, that may not always result in an appealing meal (as you’ll see).

Responsibility. My ‘Cruising with Special Diets’ guide discusses at length who is responsible for ensuring the meal placed in front of you meets your dietary needs. Ships without the option of fixed seating (including Oceania) start at a disadvantage because you’re at a different table every day, mostly with different waiters. You’re effectively starting from scratch daily.

In contrast, fixed seating means after a few days that you can stop explaining your diet, and certain things start happening without prompting (e.g. no butter, gluten-free bread). Wait staff, who are more than busy enough already, don’t need to deal with a new set of sometimes confusing special diets each day.

With flexible dining, your waiter that day, the head waiter for that section, etc. (plus the kitchen staff) are responsible for ensuring the right food appears. Tomorrow, it’s a different set of people. In these bustling and complex circumstances, is anyone really responsible? (Hint: no.)

The Vegan Experience

Before turning to some issues we had with our special diets, I want to make a few comments on the vegan options available.

First, let me repeat that I’m glad to see vegan items consistently available, a dedicated vegan menu changing daily, and I applaud new initiatives like the raw vegan smoothie bar. Oceania deserves credit for making these available.

Choice. However, while there are hundreds of new vegan menu items, what’s available that day includes only a small handful of items. The vegan dinner menu had three or four starters (some combination of soups, salads, or other appetizers), one entree, and a dessert.

So yes, Oceania may have the largest number of vegan options at sea, but it’s not like you’ve got much of a choice at any one meal. Hope you like what’s on offer. I’m sure it’s not intended, but it comes off a bit like “there’s a vegan option, what more do you want?” (Yes, you could ask for something off-menu, but it’s a bit harder to do when you’re writing in your order vs. discussing it with someone who knows the menus).

Style. The items on the vegan menu were almost always adaptations of items on that day’s regular menu. A salad with cheese on the regular menu would be offered on the vegan menu without cheese. The vegan entrée might substitute a vegan protein for the fish, chicken or meat in a regular menu’s entree. One night, the main menu’s ‘coq au vin’ was paralleled by ‘soy au vin’ (seriously). Dedicated vegan-first items (rather than derivatives) were unfortunately rare.

While some vegans do eat like this, relying on vegan meat substitutes, etc., it’s not common and certainly not haute cuisine. Vegan dishes, often rooted in traditional diets of many cultures, can be vivid, exciting, and truly grand. They’re not afraid of vegetables, grains, and legumes to be more than accents, sides, and accompaniments. They don’t look like a meat-free compromise. Too many of Oceania’s vegan entrées looked more like what your meat-potatoes-veg grandmother thinks would be a “proper meal.” If I were to think of innovative, delightful, five-star vegan meals, these dishes wouldn’t cut it. Sorry Oceania.

Allergies and Other Needs

We ran into a number of issues related to our dietary needs (gluten-free and dairy-free for both of us, and my wife also nut-free and soy-free).

Oops. A few times the wrong item showed up. Either a different item entirely or a “regular” version of an item, not one adjusted for our diets. Sometimes a waiter picks up the wrong plate in the kitchen for example. Mistakes like this happen, and you need to be vigilant. It’s hardly an Oceania thing. Having one waiter consistently taking care of you decreases the odds of it happening, but can’t eliminate it.

Remove but not replace. We also both had multiple meals that did fit our dietary requirements, but were, shall we say, sparse. You can often deal with many special diets by omitting ingredients from a dish. Ideally, you then consider if a replacement would enhance the dish, e.g. a different sauce, vegetables cooked a different way, etc. Receiving a plate with only a piece of (very plain) chicken or fish and nothing else may meet dietary requirements, but is hardly a memorable meal. Is that a plate a chef would be proud to see en route from their kitchen?

Sometimes it’s surprising what gets omitted. My wife’s order of ‘steak frites’ came out of the kitchen as just steak, because the frites were apparently pre-packaged (the horror!) and contained gluten. I’m sure you can easily imagine ways these could have been replaced. (We often ran into this pattern on our previous Oceania cruise as well.)

This may sound like whining (i.e. we should be glad we can get anything at all). But if Oceania takes pride in handling special diets and its overall culinary chops, this is one area to step it up.

Multiple restrictions. As I mentioned, both my wife and I have more than one dietary restriction. This is not uncommon these days. Oceania’s approach seemed to assume that people were vegan or gluten-free or lactose-free, etc. They had options ready to go if you fit one of those boxes, but things went downhill quickly if you had more than one dietary constraint.

As an example, one night early on my wife was given an entree that had been changed from the one on the menu so that it was gluten-free. Unfortunately, the sauce had some nuts in it. She didn’t notice until after she took a couple of bites, and was feeling quite ill through the next day, which certainly impacted our plans. My guess? They were so focused on making sure it was gluten-free that they lost track of the other issues. These are the kinds of mistakes that shouldn’t be happening.

Do you know what’s in your food? A more concerning thing happened to me, coincidentally at the same meal. I’d ordered a dish from the vegan menu that included a vegan protein I wasn’t familiar with. I assumed if it wasn’t compatible with my diet it’d be replaced by something else, e.g. tofu. When I received it, I noticed the texture was similar to several vegan ‘wheat meat’ products. I checked with the wait staff if it was okay to eat (i.e. it was gluten-free) which they assured me it was. I asked them to please check with the chef who also confirmed it was okay.

I was sick afterwards and was pretty sure why. I looked up the company that made the protein online and found most of its products were wheat-based. I contacted the head waiter in charge of allergies and asked him to find out exactly which product was in the dish I was served. He assured me again that it was totally fine. The head chef was also brought into this. I asked them to humour me and check the ingredients, and we’d meet up later. Needless to say, they had very sheepish looks on their faces (it was a wheat-based product).

Here’s my big concern. This was a product that had been used extensively throughout Oceania’s vegan menus for probably a year. Yet, the onboard culinary staff was unaware it contained one of the most common allergens. (The company that makes these vegan products, Eco-Cuisine, does not claim its products are gluten-free, and includes appropriate allergen labelling on its products. I would recommend them if your diet allows).

Aftermath

The next couple of days were pretty rough. I’m glad it wasn’t right before a port we were really looking forward to.

After the incident, I explained my main concern was understanding how this could have happened. And of course, I wanted to ensure it didn’t happen again. The head waiter in charge of allergies (who’d been the one assuring me everything was fine) didn’t know what to say about the whole episode. When I explained that I’d written a book on cruising with allergies, was very aware of Oceania’s marketing around vegan and other diets, etc., he became very quiet and then disappeared. He avoided us almost entirely for the rest of the cruise. Clearly, this is not demonstrating the leadership and responsibility that position demands. Frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it before.

The head chef onboard handled this in an extremely professional manner. He fully appreciated the seriousness and implications of this situation. I greatly appreciate his candour and willingness to discuss with me aspects of their procedures, information flow, product availability, etc., and also the various tradeoffs and difficulties. For example, many of the vegan, gluten-free or other special menu items rely on pre-made items or mixes. Fewer steps in preparation make compliance with those diets easier. Yet, if two or more dietary issues must be addressed concurrently, in some cases it leaves few options available.

There was no obvious explanation as to how it was missed that the vegan product was not suitable for gluten-free diets. I’d asked that the head chef ensure his staff, head office, and sister ships were aware of this, though have not to date received confirmation this was done.

This certainly created a mini-crisis at the time. The next day, all the culinary staff paid special attention to us. I was somewhat surprised when a few days before the end of the cruise, I received a pasta dish that had gluten-free pasta, but also a (wheat-based) Eco-Cuisine product in it. Needless to say, I was not too impressed.

Recommendations

We really want to like Oceania, but the consistently poor handling of serious dietary issues is a real deal-breaker. Based on their marketing and some of the positive changes they’ve implemented, I’ll optimistically assume they want to do the right thing, and deliver a superior culinary experience for all passengers. With that in mind, I offer the following recommendations.

Recognize that the current situation is not working. There seems to be a tendency to minimize the severity or frequency of issues, thinking it’s an exception or one-off. Don’t. We saw mistakes made repeatedly. There are some serious policy, procedure and training issues here that need to be addressed. As well, don’t believe your own hype and become complacent, or think that you’re offering the ‘finest cuisine at sea’ for people with special diets as well. You’re not. Your offerings in this regard are significantly poorer than down-market alternatives. Finally, if chefs aren’t aware of common allergens in the products they’re using, that’s a big problem.

Get real. More and more people have multiple dietary restrictions. Assuming people are all just vegan or just gluten-free doesn’t cut it. Current procedures aren’t able to handle this acceptably. Culinary staff need access to more products, resources and training to not only manage multiple restrictions but adapt recipes and do more from scratch. Pre-packaged products or mixes can only take you so far. More expertise and creativity is needed to deliver not only compliant but delicious offerings.

Expand vegan offerings. Did you actually consult with many vegan chefs around your menus? Real vegans expect better than pared down, veganized knock-offs of regular meat-potato-veg dishes. Don’t be afraid to feature dishes that put vegetables, legumes and other ingredients in more leading roles. Embrace more ethnic diversity. You’re not going to offend grandma. Offer more choices if the one daily entree doesn’t appeal, even if it’s a few ‘always available’ vegan entrées.

Fix the system issues If you’re doing things differently than every other cruise line, ask yourself if that’s a good idea. Checking off items on a menu delivered to your stateroom is far inferior to pre-ordering with a senior waiter familiar with you and the menu items (which are then entered into a computer by someone who doesn’t know you at all). Centralize responsibility in a few more senior people. Ensure they understand and appreciate that errors can cause serious illness and impact expensive holidays. Ensure they don’t think that “sorry” (or disappearing) is the only answer when there is a problem. This approach delivers better results than piling more decision making tasks on overworked lower-level staff. Let people with multiple dietary needs deal with the same staff more consistently. Yes, Oceania is offering a different product, with different ship sizes and other constraints, but it’s not that unique.

Get some help. Swallow your culinary pride, and recognize that when it comes to special diets, you’re going to have to play catch up. Seek advice from more chefs and dieticians who cater to these needs. Don’t assume you know what people want, go and find out. Other lines that cater to a younger demographic have more experience with complex diets. Take advantage of your new corporate overlords and extended family tree. NCL was one of the early pioneers in dealing with special diets, and that’s expertise you desperately need.

I’d welcome any comments or other feedback.

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