I met Keith Norman in Chicago years ago when we both spoke at the annual Food, Allergy and Anaphylaxis Connection Team (FACT) Society conference which helps teenagers diagnosed with severe food allergies. This conference, which will be held in Cincinnati this October, is important to me as someone with Celiac’s Disease and who has been Gluten Free since age 16. This man has so much energy and drive he makes me look like I’m in slow motion. As an executive chef for the South Point Hotel Casino and Spa in Las Vegas, Nevada, Keith is the equivalent of Chief Operations Officer for South Point’s 11 restaurants. He pulls his teams together, motivates them to do the right thing even when no one is looking, and keeps them centered, focused on the task at hand, and having fun doing the work of producing luxury dining experiences.
I’m privileged to share this interview with you. Keith is a great friend, an amazing chief and an even better human being. I know this story will inspire you.
CZG: How did you become an executive chef?
Keith: I started out as a cook at Bob’s Big Boy restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. Out of high school, I enlisted in the Marine Corp as a cook. When I left the Marines, I moved to Las Vegas and took my first job at Bally’s. Over the years, I’ve been on the opening team for many of the prestigious resorts and casinos in Las Vegas, including the Mirage, Treasure Island, Sun Coast, and South Point.
Eight years ago, I was looking to add something different to my life. Flipping through a magazine, I saw an ad for a teaching position in the Art Institute’s culinary department. I’ve been teaching courses on food safety ever since.
CZG: Tell me how you got connected with the Anaphylactic Society and why you are so passionate about food safety.
Keith: I teach about food safety at the Art Institute. Food safety can be a rather dry topic, so I knew I needed a way to touch my students’ heart strings. In my research, I found the organization Stop Foodborne Illness and began assigning my students a 250-word essay on them. When I reached out to their CEO to share what we were doing, it began an ongoing relationship with the organization and many children and adults whose lives have been changed forever by foodborne illness.
This relationship led to the invitation to present on food safety at the Anaphylactic Society’s conference. I met some incredible people with powerful stories, like Kendall. She’s a young woman who is allergic to 95% of all foods and deathly allergic to peanuts. She spent more than 30 days in a coma as an infant because of her allergies, and since then she’s been resuscitated dozens of times from eating allergen-contaminated foods. People like Kendall fuel my passion to teach others about safe food preparation.
CZG: Providing safe food for people with severe food allergies is serious, and making mistakes could be fatal. You’ve invented some systems or tools to help others. Tell me about those. How are you getting them into the hands of chefs around the country?
Keith: Well, I didn’t actually invent anything! I took tools and resources out there and made them better.
When I’m training my staff and my students, I first try to impart my own passion for safety to them. Any chef can go into a kitchen, receive an allergy request, and do their thing. But engaging at an emotional level takes your work to a different level.
I required annual yearly training for everyone in my restaurants from the busser to the server on our standard operating procedure (SOP). The SOP requires that every server ask every guest “Do you have any allergies the chef needs to be aware of?” We also train on how to approach “risk-takers” – people who aren’t good stewards of their food allergies or aren’t aware of the risks. Finally, for those guests with multiple allergies who require a meal made from scratch, we use a special allergen food preparation kit to prevent any chance of cross-contamination.
It means so much to me that Kendall trusts me enough to literally put her life in my hands and eat at my restaurants.
Keith Norman’s Nine Tips for Living Life at Performance Level
Knowing what you know now, what 3 things would you say to 20- or 30-year-old you? What do you wish someone else had told you at the beginning of your career (about business, leadership, etc)?
- Be patient. Change takes time. Do not be afraid to FAIL.
- Trust the process. Be dependable.
- Listen to your elders
I have had a pretty good career, I have always worked hard and certainly the Marine Corp made me a good leader. The summer youth programs, Bob’s Big Boy and mowing the neighbor’s yard just because gave me a good work ethic foundation. I’m not sure what could have been said at the beginning of my career that would have changed but here is where I was blessed – I have always had great leaders in my life. The one who I never wanted to disappoint was my grandfather (Emory Lynch). The first words out of his mouth every time he saw me was, “How is your conduct?” That has been my motivation all my life.
What three books do you recommend to anyone? These could be about business or life in general.
- What I know for sure (Oprah Winfrey)
- The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth (John C Maxwell)
- Life at Performance Level (Curtis Zimmerman)
What three things do you do consistently that you believe have contributed to your success?
- Be goal oriented. Lead your staff and MOTIVATE toward that common goal.
- Stay focused on the goal or task at hand. Use your resources.
- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.