Chef Rudy Vasquez is busy deep-frying one of today’s lunch specials, chicken fingers. Only there’s no wheat on the flour-dredged meat. The breading is gluten free because some people are allergic to it or have celiac disease.
“And so we experimented with a number of different flour blends. Some of them had too much of one particular flour, such as rice or tapioca or potato starch. And some didn’t have enough. So we had to find the right balance," Vasquez said.
The University of North Texas says it has opened the state's first college cafeteria called Kitchen West that is free of the “big eight” ingredients that cause most food allergies. These ingredients are milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, soy, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.
Vasquez embraced the challenge to keep the flavor but change the flour. UNT’s executive director of dining services, Peter Balabuch, says delivering big taste is a big deal.
“Ultimately, we’re culinarians," he said. "We’re chefs. So the idea is taking food, making it outstanding minus these ingredients."
The nonprofit Food Allergy Research and Education says 32 million Americans have food allergies or intolerances. Symptoms can range from mild itching to closing of the air passageway in the throat. In rare cases, a food allergy can kill.
At first, Kitchen West manager Mike Falk feared everything made here would turn bland, but he says the meals haven’t become hospital food.
"In some things, they may taste a little of the difference, the cheese, because it’s plant based," Falk said. "When we make our gravies, you’re going to have rice milk or plant-based cream. And that product is going to have a little off taste to it that they’re not familiar with, but it’s still got a great flavor profile. Nothing leaves till every cook in here has tasted the food. If it’s not perfect, it don’t go out.”
Connor Jones likes it.
"It’s awesome. It’s delicious," Jones said.
He’s a 23-year-old UNT senior who learned when he was little that he couldn’t tolerate gluten or dairy. So for him, Kitchen West goes down easy.
“I can come here and just know that anything in here is good for me to have. We have incredible chefs here, you know?”
Balabuch says delivering top taste without the top eight allergens has taken some work.
“We’ve changed over all the cookware. We did a deep sanitizing of the kitchen. We brought in all new plates. Getting the ingredients in that we can verify on the ingredient list, if it says something is manufactured in a facility that has tree nuts or pea — we’re not getting it," Balabuch said.
UNT’s registered dietician, Samantha Krysiak, says establishing and maintaining high allergen-free standards wasn’t just championed by staff or students.
“I think as parents you worry a lot sending your kid off to college for the first time. And especially with a kid with a food allergy. So it doesn’t provide a safe place just for the student, but it provides comfort to the parent,” she said.
Paul Antico’s one of those parents. Three of his seven kids have food allergies. He lives in New England and has spent years seeking restaurants safe for the whole family. About a decade ago, he launched the AllergyEats webpage to help other parents. It lists restaurant allergy policies and menus. Antico’s never seen something quite like what UNT’s created.
“This one is really unique. I have not seen a college that has a dining hall that’s entirely free of 'top eight,'" Antico said. "That’s really revolutionary because it’s also offering kids a lot of choice, which is great."
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