Longtime Chef's Menu Appeals to Diverse Cultural Preferences
April 9, 2014
Gene Christiano, executive chef for UT Dallas’ Dining Services.
When he was trying to decide what to do in life, Gene Christiano recalled the advice of his grandfather, a native of Italy who once worked as a baker.
People will always need to eat, find medical help and get legal representation, his grandfather told him. So Christiano would never go wrong becoming a chef, a doctor or a lawyer.
At 18, tired of working as a dishwasher, Christiano decided to take up that advice.
He put himself through the culinary program at El Centro College in Dallas and completed an apprenticeship with the American Culinary Federation. Then he worked his way up in the culinary industry for 17 years at Culinair, ClubCorp and Central Market.
Unlike some aspiring chefs, Christiano didn’t daydream about a Food Network show of his own. His goal was more pragmatic: He wanted to learn how to feed a lot of people and make enough money to provide for a family one day.
As executive chef for UT Dallas’ Dining Services, Christiano knows he made the right choice. He enjoys feeding a lot of people, and he manages a staff that is large enough to do it well.
“We are unique in that our recipes are made from scratch. We have a real strong culinary team and try to recruit great people and teach them new techniques,” Christiano said.
Up For Challenges of Feeding 3,000 Daily
There are special challenges that come with feeding 3,000 students a day, especially at a University with a globally diverse student population.
With a good percentage of international students, many of whom are vegetarian, Christiano has worked to expand the dining hall offerings to include regional specialties from around the world.
Dining Services makes its recipes from scratch, Christiano said. He is recruiting more culinary staff to handle the fall 2014 opening of a second dining hall in what will be the newest and largest residence hall.
A typical day’s offerings might include chickpea and potato casserole, vegetarian flatbread, teriyaki stir fry, hummus and balsamic-marinated vegetables, alongside such standard college staples as tacos, pizzas and lasagna.
“Chartwells embraces diversity and has many programs that emulate different culture trends,” Christiano said of UT Dallas’ food services vendor.
Christiano and his staff of 108 also accommodate special nutritional needs students might have, including gluten sensitivity and other food allergies.
“We like to communicate directly with these students to assure them that the food they eat is safe,” he said. “It’s going above and beyond, but it’s our job to nourish these students.”
That includes having a dedicated toaster for cinnamon raisin bread that is made without gluten and stocking a special refrigerator called S.P.A.C.E. (Special Products for Allergen Controlled Eating) that students can access on their own when they need it.
Using an online tool called Webtrition, the dining staff builds menus to specific guidelines using more than 10,000 recipes that include nutritional analyses.
Dustin Davidson, executive sous chef, works with Christiano to prepare a 21-day menu plan with seven to eight items that change daily. They also offer “monotony breakers,” surprising students with Indian appetizers, for instance. And for holidays, they’ll go all out, most recently with a special Valentine’s Day menu.
On his own time, Christiano said he prefers to do mostly rustic-style cooking, a simple method of food preparation that “lets the ingredients speak for themselves.”
“We are unique in that our recipes are made from scratch. We have a real strong culinary team and try to recruit great people and teach them new techniques.”
“My favorite dish is osso buco, a classic, Italian braised veal shank. I love to prepare things that take a long time to make, using quality, simple food,” he said.
With the growing student population at UT Dallas, Christiano is now recruiting more culinary staff to handle the fall 2014 opening of a second dining hall in what will be the newest and largest residence hall.
He also works to give back to the community, and has become known for his philanthropic work. For the last five years, he has volunteered his time and expertise helping raise more than $1 million for the Marit Peterson Fund for Melanoma Research. Christiano prepares a dinner for donors and feeds about 185 golfers at a tournament lunch.
And he still likes to cook for his family when he gets home every evening. Taking the job with Chartwells at UT Dallas, he said, gave him a better life balance in what can be a competitive culinary industry.
“It excites me to come here. It’s rewarding to build a great team and take care of our students,” Christiano said. “Chartwells has more of a partnership than vendor relationship with the University. We work really well together.”