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Keeping Kosher on Norwegian Cruise Lines

Contributed by: Jason Schoenbrun | Dates of Travel: Jan 2008 & Jan 2010


Kosher Info: On my 2008 trip, Norwegian Cruise Lines had a kosher menu of sealed hechshered items and double-wrapped items. The latter consisted mostly of fish, but 1 was chicken. We asked to see the packaging, and sure enough it was Purdue chicken (i.e. trief). After many conversations, they politely promised not to do it again, but you should be aware of this on your trip. I’ll be back on NCL again soon so I’ll send an update if God forbid the same thing happens.

However, I should say that overall it was excellent. The kosher food on Norwegian Cruise Lines is catered by Weberman’s, and it was awesome. I keep telling people it is much better than airline food. It maybe not as high caliber as what all the non-Jews were eating on the ship, but it was really good anyway.

Only thing that was outrageous was that for 3 of 5 days, the kosher menu had purdue chicken on it. I told them if only the people who asked for the kosher menu and ordered that chicken knew, they’d be fuming!

It was a 5 day cruise during yeshiva break to the western caribbean a few years ago, so hopefully things have changed.


In 2010, things took a turn for the worse. NCL had run out of Kosher food on DAY 1! To explain the situation, I am posting the majority of my complaint letter to NCL management:

Dear Mr. Sheehan,
I was aboard your Norwegian Jewel cruise to the Caribbean from January 24 – January 31, 2010. This letter was originally going to be a scathing complaint letter, demanding, with the help of a lawyer if need be, a full refund. Thanks to the help of your incredible staff, I must write this letter to shower praise where it is due. I will begin with the complaint, because NCL messed up in a big way to cause this mess and hopefully this letter can help make sure the root cause will be avoided in the future. I will then proceed to the praise, and then suggestions.

Complaint
My family and I are Orthodox Jews and therefore keep strict Kosher. The six of us all submitted a special request form for Kosher meals many months in advance, and have our confirmations that indicate that we reserved Kosher meals. This alone should have meant that there would be sufficient options for approximately 6 people x 7 days x 3 meals = 126 meals with our names on them. Considering this confirmed request, there are no excuses for any of us at any point on our cruise to be told there are no meals for us.

However, we had significant issues beginning on our very first day. For our first lunch on the ship, we ate fruits and vegetables at the Garden Café, because the Maitre D at the Tsar’s Palace, Junior, told us that it would take some time for the Kosher meals to be brought on the ship and to be made ready. We completely understood. After lunch, we went to Azura to make sure everything would be set for dinner. The Maitre D, Maribel Quevedo, told us to order with her then so that everything would be defrosted in time for us to sit down at dinner. Unfortunately, she said the only options for dinner were Fish Croquettes and Mousaka! This would not be an enjoyable first meal, but we were promised that they would have more options beginning with lunch on our second day of the cruise. We again understood.

We sat down for dinner at the Tsar’s Palace on our first day. When we asked for our Kosher meals, our waiter brought over Junior. He gave us the Mousaka we ordered, but no fish. We also noticed that the Mousaka was only an appetizer! We demanded a real dinner, and he came back with his sheet of Kosher meal inventory (catered by Weberman’s Traditional Foods in Miami, Florida). He said that about 5 options were out of stock already, but a decent selection of about 2 appetizers and 10 main courses remained. Alarm bells went off when he said that any options were already out of stock at the very first dinner, but we went ahead and ordered. It took them a full hour to bring our food to us, on top of the hour it had taken them to show us the list of Kosher options. After our meal, Junior promised that if we ordered with him then for the second day’s three meals, everything would be smoother. We did so and looked forward to smoother sailing (sorry) from then on.

Breakfast and lunch on our second day was served as ordered, and tasted excellent. Dinner however, was a complete disaster. We went to the Tsar’s Palace at 6:15 PM and were told it was full and that we’d have to wait 40 minutes to sit down. So we took a beeper and found Junior. We told him that we’d be seated in 40 minutes, and asked that he make sure that we’d have no further delays and be able to eat the food we had ordered the previous day soon after sitting down. He gave us his assurance. Our beeper went off at 7:00 PM and we sat down. Despite having ordered all of our meals the day before (which should have meant that those meals would be reserved with our cabin numbers and not released to anyone else), Junior told us that the food we had ordered simply didn’t exist. We wondered aloud why he took our orders the previous day if they either didn’t exist in the first place or he was going to give them away to someone else, as well as why he didn’t tell us about this issue 45 minutes prior. While waiting for Junior to get back to us, my father ate three baked potatoes, and my Mom and I ate two, and everyone else had similar non-Dinner for Dinner that night. Our baby was crying the whole time, watching all other patrons eat. Finally at 8:00 PM, Junior came back and informed us that he found a few Veal and Mousaka meals for us. Most of us didn’t like those and the rest of us had already filled up on potatoes! So we left and went straight to complain at the Reception Desk on Deck 7.

The lady at the desk referred us to Victor Nunez da Silva (Restaurant Manager), who came out in a few minutes to speak with us. He told us that the ship ordered so much Kosher food, but simply ran out due to demand. We appreciated NCL’s situation, but told him our two main points:

1) We understand that there was so much demand, but we had confirmed our Kosher meals months ago, and therefore our meals should have been set aside with our names and staterooms on them so that no matter how much demand there was, each confirmed Kosher passenger would not run out of meals. If there were people who forgot to confirm that they were Kosher ahead of time, they should be denied Kosher meals until all confirmed Kosher guests are fully taken care of. Like on an airplane, meals should only be distributed after checking the passenger’s name against a list of advance orders.

2) We also doubt Victor’s claim that the demand was so much more than what was confirmed ahead of time; each of the 60 or so people who ate Kosher with us once we found a solution had told us they faxed their special Kosher requests months ago. Therefore, we doubt demand on the ship was so much higher than the number of previously submitted and confirmed requests that we almost completely ran out of food after just 1 day on board! If the issue was demand on the ship being higher than the number of advance requests, running out of meals after one day out of seven implies that seven times as many guests requested Kosher meals on ship than reserved Kosher meals in advance. We would be shocked if this were the case, but would appreciate correction if this was indeed the case. In fact, we would appreciate clarification on precisely how many advance special Kosher requests you received. We suspect that NCL simply did not tally the advance Kosher requests submitted and ordered what they are used to ordering.

After making these points, we told Victor that all Kosher guests would have to eat fruits and vegetables for the six remaining days of the cruise. We are talking about a cruise, where people spend a significant amount of money so that eating can be a principal component of the luxurious experience! Victor acknowledged our severe grievances, and promised to make amends however he could. He called a meeting the following day at 8:00 AM so that we could speak with him and the Executive Chef, Andreas O. Hollerer to devise a solution.

The next morning we met with them and explained again our situation: we had nothing to eat. There were few solutions we could imagine other than either NCL flying overnight more Weberman’s meals to our next port or paying for our flights home from the next port. This is where the compliment portion of the letter begins, and it consists exclusively of such praise and suggestions for the future from here on. I will therefore sum up the above by saying that there is no excuse in the future for running out of Kosher food for any guest who reserved and confirmed Kosher meals in advance. Not on the seventh day, and certainly not on the first day! If such a situation can happen again, it is clear that NCL does not take responsibility for promises made and Jews should not trust NCL to cruise with them again. I hope you implement new procedures, such as checking names and cabins against a list as on an airplane, to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Praise

At our meeting, Andreas mentioned that he had on board cases of Kosher chicken as well as new dishes and cooking utensils. I apologized to him later, but I doubted NCL actually had Kosher chicken on board. Why would they? They couldn’t be served to Kosher guests anyway unless they had a Kosher supervisor (traditionally called a Mashgiach: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mashgiach) to supervise it being cooked to make sure everything is done according to Jewish law, which NCL obviously doesn’t retain on staff. Since Kosher chicken costs more, it (still) makes no sense to me why NCL would have any on board. Nevertheless, I acknowledged that if such chicken existed, I could volunteer to serve as Mashgiach and perhaps this could work. I also mentioned that in accordance with Jewish law, a Jew would have to turn on all Kosher cooking surfaces before any Kosher cooking can be done. Both of these Kosher requirements were an issue, as passengers are not allowed in the kitchen. But in order to settle this major issue in a timely manner, Victor and Andreas took us straight to John O’Hara’s (Hotel Director) office to secure special permission for me to enter the Kitchen and turn on the stoves and supervise the cooking intermittently.

John as well as Mustafa Gulbahar (Food and Beverage Director) were there and we explained the situation to them. They said it would be impossible due to customs and other regulations to ship any more Weberman’s meals to us. However, they granted permission for me (and only me) to enter the kitchen on a limited and supervised basis so that I may act as Mashgiach. I then went to the Kitchen with Andreas to check whether the chicken, as well as a number of other ingredients, were actually Kosher. We determined that the chicken, as well as the vast majority of other ingredients were Kosher. This, particularly the chicken, sealed our ability to proceed.

I wrote a list of rules for Andreas (Only use ingredients I approve are Kosher / No milk and meat together / No fish and meat together / Wash all utensils in cold water / I must turn on all stoves / No non-Kosher food or cooking utensils may be used in the Kosher section) and set a time to turn on the stoves every morning. He agreed to follow all the rules and ask me as soon as he has any questions. We set standard Kosher meal times and a standard place of the Azura extension so that the same waiters can serve us every meal and new staff didn’t have to be retrained to our special circumstances every day. I provided these updates to all Kosher Jews.

By the next meal, I was surprised at exactly how far Andreas went to satisfy Kosher people. He dedicated 2 chefs, Enrique Arroyo and Valentino Ritiro to cook for us, as well as a full wait staff led by Jefftha Foster and Maribel Quevedo (see below). Jefftha was particularly friendly and accommodating. Andreas even prepared a menu for each meal with many options, including Appetizers, Entrées and Desserts. This was well beyond what any of us Kosher-observant people were expecting. We expect to eat reheated frozen (Weberman’s) meals which taste pretty good, but most of us have never eaten Kosher meals on a ship prepared by a professional chef. Every dish tasted amazing and all 60 or so of us were so grateful to Andreas and most NCL staff for turning a terrible situation around into more than we could have asked for.

Sabbath meals were particularly challenging, but the wait staff rose to the occasion. Among other challenges, food had to be prepared Friday afternoon before the Sabbath began, and there were nearly twice as many Kosher mouths to feed because the Friday night Sabbath meal is the meal in which even less-observant Jews generally participate. Andreas even took the initiative to identify a traditional dish, a stew called cholent, and cooked it for us. This dish is eaten by most religious Jews in America for Saturday lunch due to the Sabbath cooking restrictions mentioned above and how easy it is to make within those constraints. We could never have imagined Andreas would take such initiative to make us feel so at home. This was the most special thing he did for us, and went a tremendous way to endear him and NCL to all of us.

For these reasons, we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the people who turned this situation around.

As long as I’m writing this letter, I should mention all the other great things NCL did for Jews. We pray three times every day, and need a room for our services. The Reception Desk staff was very accommodating to make sure we always had a room to use. On Sabbath, we have longer services and we were able to reserve a room as well, with seats arranged in advance by the ship staff. Additionally, the staff brought to the room prayer books and wine so that those who forgot to bring their own could pray and make the traditional blessing over wine after our prayer services. They also graciously listed the times for our services in both Friday and Saturday’s Freestyle.

Suggestions
I have a few suggestions I wanted to offer for the future.

  • Before the cruise, ensure there are sufficient meals for each such person who requested Kosher meals in advance. These meals should not be distributed on the cruise to any person who did not put in an advance request.
  • As mentioned above, so many of the foods I checked with Andreas were Kosher. However, none of us Jews knew what we could eat. For instance, on the first day I went to the Reception Desk on Deck 7 and asked if the soft serve or hard ice cream were Kosher. How happy the Jews would be if it were! After about 10 minutes of the lady making calls and waiting for calls back, she said she spoke to someone who supposedly knew, and said that neither were Kosher. As it turned out, while checking ingredients in the kitchen with Andreas I discovered that both indeed had Kosher certification on their packaging. If only NCL provided a list of foods to those with Kosher requests listing the many ready-to-eat foods which already have Kosher certification symbols on their packages. Canned peaches, peanut butter, cottage cheese, olive oil and bagels are among the foods in this category. We didn’t eat any of these until well into the cruise when we learned they were indeed labeled with a Kosher certification symbol (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hekhsher).
  • John O’Hara said that every year NCL is shocked by the number of Kosher Jews on certain cruises. I am not surprised that this catches you by surprise every year, but I will tell you the rhyme and reason so you can better prepared in the future. Many Jewish days schools have Winter break during the standard Christmas break. However, many, particularly in the NY/NJ area, have a different Winter break. It is usually during the third and fourth week of January. Religious Jews cannot board or disembark from the ship on their Sabbath, so cruises that leave or arrive on Saturday are excluded from this. Miami is a popular port to embark from for religious Jews. This means that every year you can expect a deluge of Kosher Jews during these weeks, and should not only reserve sufficient Weberman’s meals for each cabin that sends in an advanced request, but also order extra for the expected additional quantity of Jews. This will happen every year like clockwork.
  • The prayer books are in accordance with the Reform denomination of Judaism, which omits most prayers said by Orthodox Jews. Orthodox Jews arguably tend to practice more consistently than Reform Jews, and would therefore use prayer books more often (three times daily). If NCL wanted to provide prayer books for those who would get the most use out of them, I would recommend also purchasing the most used Jewish prayer book in the world, the Hebrew/English translated Artscroll prayer book. Here is a link: http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Artscroll-Siddur-Mesorah/dp/089906650X Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artscroll#Popular_acceptance
  • The Kosher food on this cruise ended up being spectacular, thanks to a number of special NCL employees. While we are happy it worked out this way, this should be the last time that this occurs due to NCL running out of Weberman’s meals for those who reserve them. However, you may want to intentionally provide this setup as an option for future Kosher guests. For instance, perhaps it is cheaper and/or easier to designate a chef and a small portion of a kitchen for Kosher guests than ordering and distributing Weberman’s meals. If that’s the case, I would be happy to serve as Mashgiach for next year’s Jewish day school January break non-Saturday-embarking/disembarking cruise out of Miami. You would have to keep me on staff so that I may legally have unrestricted access to the kitchen. I can assist with ensuring all necessary ingredients are Kosher (90% of them already are). I would take responsibility for keeping relevant staff abreast of any necessary information, for instance that we would need more dining room space for the Friday night Sabbath meal, as mentioned above, among many other considerations. I can prepare a list of all such considerations now, if you’d like to proceed in considering this option. If this arrangement were made, I would spread the word to many religious communities and be able to guarantee more than 100 Kosher guests, and probably well beyond that. Many, many more religious Jews would be interested in cruising with NCL knowing that the food is prepared by a chef instead of reheated frozen airline-style meals. I worked and got along very well with Andreas, Mirabel, Jefftha, Mustafa, Victor and all other staff. With advance planning, we could accomplish the same result without the hurdles.

Conclusion
I regret the tens of hours (literally) I spent waiting, complaining, lobbying for improvements, helping to implement these improvements, liaising between all affected parties and writing this letter, among other things. On the other hand, I appreciate this opportunity to point out both the major deficiencies we experienced this past week aboard NCL, as well as the impressive accommodations made to turn the situation around. My hope in investing all this time is that both NCL and Kosher Jews can avoid these pitfalls in the future for an enhanced experience. My hope in investing all this time is that all people responsible for the foundation of the debacle (not having enough meals) take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again. My hope in investing all this time is that all those who made impressive accommodations are given a pat on the back for saving NCL from about 60 full refund requests. Lastly, I hope that the suggestions I give above are helpful. I would be happy to communicate with you further if you have any questions.

I have included on the final page the cabin numbers of all Kosher Jews who were similarly affected.

Sincerely,
Jason Schoenbrun

[To those who are interested in trying a Kosher Cruise - we just partnered with KosherCruises.com to offer a 15% discount on two of their Summer 2011 Cruises: DEAL: Kosher Cruise to ALASKA or the BALTICS!]

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  • Daniel Meron

    We recently had an unpleasant experience on a trip with Carnival cruise line. i asked for the kosher meal they told us they have. After waiting nearly one hour they brought out my meal of kosher meat all sealed in a nailon bag, and it was unedible being half cooked – half frozen.

  • http://www.facebook.com/susqhb Susanne Goldstone Rosenhouse

    I had the exact same experience. In 2008 I crusied on NCL and the kosher food was superb! My dad’s friend had mentioned to ask about kosher options the first day, which I had not expected they would have at all, and was pleasantly surprised to be presented with a huge menu to choose from. I actually had one of the best rib steaks and briskets I had had in a while and my parents who don’t keep kosher kept asking to sample my dishes. Yet when I cruised again in December 2009, it was pretty bad and, yes, they also were running low after the first couple days. Perhaps all of our raving a couple years ago sent too many kosher consumers heading to NCL and they had to make kosher cutbacks. Who knows. Thanks for the post. Glad I wasn’t the only one with this problem.

    • http://YeahThatsKosher.com Dani Klein

      @Susanne – and all this time you didnt write a post on that for the blog? ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/susqhb Susanne Goldstone Rosenhouse

    And to the other commenters, people choosing non-”kosher cruises” know exactly what they are getting into. Kosher cruises are 3 to 4 times the price of regular cruises and who wants to vacation to the islands when their entire shul is on board? Kind of defeats the purpose. And Carnival is notorious for having terrible kosher options. My recommendation, travel a line like NCL or others that you know has some kosher food and go prepared knowing how to ask them to cook fish double wrapped, what can and can’t be eaten from their kitchens and whatnot. I found a few excellent articles online from Aish or one of those sites.

  • Chavi

    I have cruise kosher on a few cruise lines. Last time I went on Royal Caribbean (RCCL) we did not have a problem with getting the Weberman’s packaged double wrapped prepared food. The only complaint was that on the first day they had about 14 options and by the last day they only had 3 options left. They did not have a double wrapped menu, but they would double wrap on request. One problem I had is that I asked them to steam vegetables for me and when I got them the foil was completely open… obviously not okay, but they took the feedback and tried better next time. I did not have any trouble with the double wrapped fish, it was delicious!

    For breakfast they had OU-D yogurt, fresh fruit, cereal and milk, orange juice, and Thomas bagels and English muffins which are OU

  • Chavi

    I have cruise kosher on a few cruise lines. Last time I went on Royal Caribbean (RCCL) we did not have a problem with getting the Weberman’s packaged double wrapped prepared food. The only complaint was that on the first day they had about 14 options and by the last day they only had 3 options left. They did not have a double wrapped menu, but they would double wrap on request. One problem I had is that I asked them to steam vegetables for me and when I got them the foil was completely open… obviously not okay, but they took the feedback and tried better next time. I did not have any trouble with the double wrapped fish, it was delicious!

    For breakfast they had OU-D yogurt, fresh fruit, cereal and milk, orange juice, and Thomas bagels and English muffins which are OU

  • http://YeahThatsKosher.com Dani Klein

    To those who are interested in trying a Kosher Cruise – we just partnered with KosherCruises.com to offer a 15% discount on two of their Summer 2011 Cruises:
    http://yeahthatskosher.com/2011/02/deal-kosher-cruise-to-alaska-or-the-baltics/