Allergen-free Kitchen West making life easier for culinary operations manager

Jan. 29, 2020

By Erin Cristales

 

It’s hard not to be jealous of Brennon Turner (’12) when you hear that a key part of his job is taste-testing the culinary creations put forth each day by UNT’s supremely talented chefs. But a year ago, after the Bruceteria-based culinary operations manager was diagnosed with Celiac disease, his otherwise enviable role became a little bit trickier.

“I was experiencing a lot of stomach issues, fatigue, foggy brain,” says Turner, who spent nearly a decade in franchising as a manager at his family’s four area Schlotzsky’s locations before returning to UNT to complete his bachelor’s degree in hospitality management with a minor in business. “Those three months when I was trying to figure out what was going on with my body were pretty challenging. Once I got a diagnosis and knew what the solution was, I jumped right in.”

Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune condition in which the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine and, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation, is estimated to affect one in 100 people worldwide. Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale — a cross between wheat and rye — and can be found in foods ranging from breads and cereals to salad dressings and sauces.

That’s why, Turner says, he now often has to rely on his chefs to test the offerings in the serving lines, as the solution to managing his Celiac disease is ensuring that gluten-filled foods remain off limits. But there’s one place where he never has to think twice about sampling the goods: the recently revamped Kitchen West.

The dining hall, formerly known for its Southern cooking, is now a haven for folks, like Turner, who need dishes free of the “Big 8” food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts and wheat (including barley and rye).

“Over the summer, I got to be the taste tester for the chefs trying out recipes at Kitchen West,” says Turner, who provided constructive feedback on the recipes. “I tried everything from the muffins and cookies to the fried chicken and rolls.”

Now, Turner dines at Kitchen West — which hosts its official grand opening Feb. 5 — at least a couple of times per week. The experience, he says, is immensely satisfying on both a personal and professional level.

“When you don’t know what and where you can eat, it’s pretty stressful. But I can come over here and eat the whole line,” he says. “Students take their health seriously, and we take them seriously. I hope that having the option to eat at Kitchen West gives them a sense of relief and comfort — just like it does for me.”

 

About Kitchen West

Kitchen West, at UNT's West Hall, provides one of the nation’s first allergen-free dining experiences on a college campus. It is the second all-you-care-to-eat collegiate dining hall in the nation and the first in Texas to be completely free of the “Big 8” food allergens — milk, eggs, fish, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts and wheat

UNT Dining Services already clearly labels foods containing allergens at all dining halls on campus but decided to create a dedicated space for students, faculty and staff who can’t consume some or all of the “Big 8.”

“We wanted to offer this unique dining experience so that members of our community who have food allergies could eat worry-free,” says Peter Balabuch, executive director of Dining Services. “At Kitchen West, the ‘Big 8’ allergens will never touch any of the foods or the utensils and equipment used for preparation and serving. That’s a reassuring thing for those individuals with food allergies and for the parents of our students.”

Kitchen West also received a makeover with new furniture and paint to lighten and modernize the space. Signage throughout educates patrons on the allergens and UNT’s Kitchen Principles. 

The dining hall's grand opening is set for 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 5, with entrees including lemon rosemary chicken, herb roasted beef round and eggplant parmesan casserole, as well as many more dishes "free of allergens, full of flavor."