Hotels and cruise lines are catering to diverse dietary needs, from vegan to kosher to gluten-free.
As a travel adviser selling luxury trips, Stacy Small, 46, the owner of the Los Angeles-based consultancy Elite Travel International, spends more than half the year traveling for her job, but her severe celiac allergy, diagnosed in 2001, has made life on the road challenging — at least in the past. “It wasn’t too long ago that finding food without wheat was nearly impossible, even at upscale hotels,” she said.
Now, according to Small, the options seem almost limitless: In London, she enjoys decadent gluten-free teas, complete with scones, at hotels like Claridge’s, and on the Amalfi Coast in Italy, the lemon pasta at the Hotel Santa Caterina, handmade with wheat-free noodles, is a favorite. In Tokyo, there’s the tempura at the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, fried in a dedicated gluten-free fryer, and on her trans-Atlantic journey on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, pancakes for breakfast and pastries midafternoon — all without wheat — were staples.
“For the first time,” she said, “I am not stressed when I travel about what I’m going to eat.”
She may not be the only one. Travelers with dietary restrictions, whether they are because of religion, allergies or personal preferences, can relax when it’s time to eat because of the way hotels and cruise lines are increasingly accommodating their needs.
Vegan? Low-carb? No worries
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Healthy or vegetarian options on cruises and at hotels aren’t a novel concept nowadays. Green juices? Yes. Low-carb, vegan and gluten-free? No problem. What is new, however, is the unprecedented level with which both are catering to guests’ diets.
Some are expanding their kitchens or are creating separate areas within existing ones where chefs prepare dishes, long an amenity on airlines, that adhere to various food plans such as kosher, vegan, halal, and soy-free. Some have dedicated nut-free and vegetarian kitchens, and some have gone so far as to have separate cooking utensils and plates for guests with restrictions. And guests usually don’t pay extra for such meals.
Part of this growing attention may be connected to the rise in food allergies — 15 million Americans have them today, compared with 12 million in 2011, according to Food Allergy Research & Education, a nonprofit in McLean, Va., and as more travelers have certain “no” foods, the hospitality industry is trying to please them with cuisine that is a “yes.”
The other reason, according to Claire Bennett, the executive vice president of American Express Travel, a global travel network of 9,000 counselors, speaks to a larger trend in hospitality of customization. “Whether it’s choosing the pillow in your hotel room or crafting an itinerary to suit your interests, travelers today expect a certain level of personalization, and food preferences are a key aspect of that,” she said.
Cruise Lines International Association, a trade association for the cruise industry, recently released a statement about the progress cruise ships have made in accommodating a wide variety of diets from diabetic and dairy-free to no-sodium and halal.
The luxury cruise line Crystal Cruises, for example, has a separate area in the main kitchens of its two ocean liners where a chef cooks kosher meals; for other special requests such as Indian vegan, as was the case on a recent cruise from Stockholm to Copenhagen, there is a designated chef who prepares the meals at a special order station. Crystal created the section about a year ago, according to vice president of food and beverage Toni Neumeister, because of the rise in the number of special requests.
Like cruises, the situation has also improved at hotels for travelers, like Small, who must, or choose to, avoid certain foods. Jim Bendt, the founder of the Minneapolis-based travel consultancy Pique Travel Design, said that when his clients ask for specialty meals on their trips, he no longer struggles to find hotels for them.
“I recently had one family going to Zimbabwe with a son who is allergic to gluten, fructose and nuts, and the lodges they’re staying at weren’t fazed by this at all and, in fact, wanted to know all his favorite foods so the boy would be happy,” he said.
The Peninsula Beverly Hills has made a serious commitment to adaptability. The property’s kitchen completed a $3 million renovation in January, which was redesigned with dietary considerations in mind. The roughly 7,500-square-foot space has nut-free mixers and several designated fryers that are either soy-free, nut-free or strictly vegetarian; there are also separate cutting boards, knives and cooking utensils for each of these diets, and for kosher guests, the executive chef David Codney not only uses a new set of pans and utensils to cook their food but also has waiters serve them their meals on new plates and glassware so that there is no chance they were in contact with shellfish or a combination of meat and dairy (no shellfish and not mixing meat and dairy are customary in a kosher diet).
The Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris, approaches food in a similar manner, even at its three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Cinq, where seafood is the focus. A part of the restaurant’s kitchen is nut-free, and another part is seafood-free, because, yes, some diners at seafood restaurants are allergic to fish.
These kinds of modifications could be frustrating for chefs, who often pride themselves on showcasing their cooking style, but that’s not always the case.
Codney, for one, said that guest requests inspire his creativity. There was the time when a family asked for meals that were vegetarian, as per their Jainism (an ancient Indian religion), and without eggs and root vegetables, such as onions and carrots. The menu he created for them included seared cauliflower steaks with curried chickpeas, a curry with English peas and black mustard, and sweet corn in a spicy and creamy tomato gravy.
The food was so tasty, he said, that he now makes the dishes for himself.