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UNT May Have The State's First Allergen-Free College Cafeteria

It's an ordinary fall day at the University of North Texas and 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 University of North Texas says it has opened the state’s first college cafeteria free of the “big 8” ingredients that cause most food allergies. 

The “big 8” ingredients are milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, soy, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. The breading Vasquez works with is gluten-free so it's safe for people are allergic to wheat, gluten-intolerant or have Celiac disease.

“We experimented with a number of different flour blends,” Vasquez said. “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.”  

Food bar in the allergen-free cafeteria
Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
This isn't UNT's first specialty dining hall. In 2011, UNT opened Mean Greens Cafe, which they say is the nation's first all-vegan collegiate dining hall.

Vasquez embraced the challenge to keep the flavor but change the flour. UNT’s executive director of dining services, Peter Balabuch, said delivering big taste is a big deal. 

“Ultimately we’re culinarians. We’re chefs," Balabuch said. "The idea is taking food (and) making it outstanding minus these ingredients.” 

The nonprofit Food Allergy Research and Education, or FARE, says 32 million Americans have food allergies or intolerances. Symptoms can range from mild itching to closing of the air passage in the throat. In that rare case, a food allergy can kill.

Mike Falk, kitchen manager
Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Mike Falk manages this kitchen, now free of the big 8 allergens. He's committed to making great tasting food. He says if it's not perfect, it won't go out.

At first, cafeteria manager Mike Falk feared everything made in the dining hall would turn bland, but he said the meals haven’t become hospital food.

“In some things they may taste a little of the difference.” Falk said. “ The cheese, because it’s plant-based. 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 until every cook in here has tasted the food. If it’s not perfect it won’t go out.”

UNT senior Connor Jones said the food was "awesome" and "delicious."

The 23-year-old has known that he can't tolerate gluten or dairy since he was a child. So for him, the cafeteria is a welcomed option.

“I can come here and just know that anything in here is good for me to have,” Jones said. “We have incredible chefs here you know?”

Connor Jones
Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
UNT Senior Connor Jones said he's especially fond of the dining hall's desserts, which contain no eggs, milk or wheat.

Delivering top taste without the top eight allergens has taken some work. Dining services director Peter Balabuch said finding ingredients that the team can verify were manufactured in an allergen-free environment has been a challenge. They also had to make some changes to the kitchenware.

“We’ve changed over all the cookware. We did a deep sanitizing of the kitchen. We brought in all new plates,” Balabuch said.

UNT’s registered dietician, Samantha Krysiak, said 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,” Krysiak said. “ So it doesn’t provide a safe place just for the student, but it provides comfort to the parent.”

Paul Antico is 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 website to help other parents. It lists restaurant allergy policies and menus. Antico’s never seen anything quite like what UNT has created.

“This one is really unique. I have not seen a college that has a dining hall that’s entirely free of top eight (allergens),"Antico said. "Assuming they have multiple stations, that’s really revolutionary because it’s also offering kids a lot of choice.”

UNT hopes all of its students who need the cafeteria will choose it and think it’s great too. But the chefs said they would love for students to eat here without needing to, then come back because they like the food — while never realizing its allergen-free.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.