As a little girl, Amber Duncan was a mainstay in her grandma’s kitchen where she developed a love for cooking all kinds of treats, from savory to sweet. At 14, she began waitressing before working her way to the back of the house as a chef. Four years ago, she brought her culinary skills to UNT, first to Kerr Dining Hall then to West Hall’s Kitchen West, where she now works as a supervisor at the allergen-free dining hall — only the second of its kind in the nation.
Kitchen West is completely free of the “Big 8” food allergens — milk, eggs, fish, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, soy and shellfish. Many of those ingredients are staples of holiday cooking, and here, Duncan provides some advice to help hosts plan more inclusive dinners for their guests.
How did you get into allergen-free cooking?
UNT came up with the idea to make Kitchen West allergen-free last spring, so we started to work on the menus and tested recipes throughout the summer. I had done a little bit of that previously because my dad has a lot of food allergies.
There are so many people now who have food allergies or need other dietary accommodations — what’s the best approach to take as the holiday host when planning a dinner for multiple guests?
If people don’t know that the dish is allergen-free, they won’t be able to taste the difference. So you can plan accordingly. If you’re going to make your stuffing, you can go buy gluten-free bread at the grocery store and otherwise make it just like you normally would. That way, you won’t have the stress of making multiple versions of the same dish.
I’m a mom of three kids, and a lot of times, if you take anything to school, it’s important that everyone knows exactly what’s in it. So it’s always polite to write the ingredients on a sticky note and post it by the dish. That way, people can be more aware of exactly what they’re eating. It’s impossible to accommodate everyone. Some people have even more allergens beyond the “Big 8.” You never know what you might be up against, so that’s a good precaution to take.
Some people worry that cooking gluten-free or vegan meals means sacrificing flavor. What are some things to keep in mind when preparing these types of dishes?
Season it just like you would anything else. It’s all about the seasoning, no matter if it’s vegan or allergen-free. If you still put the same amount of love into it that you would anything else, people can taste that.
Are there certain seasonings that are your go-to?
You can’t go wrong with salt, pepper and garlic.
Are there allergen-free dishes that are your favorite?
Our desserts are pretty amazing — I especially love the chocolate cupcakes.