photo courtesy South Point Hotel Casino & Spa

Allergies can be a deal breaker for dining out at restaurants and it’s a rare occurrence when establishments make a hardy effort to cater to those suffering from severe sensitivities.

One chef in Las Vegas, Keith Norman, has set out to completely change the perception. Norman, the assistant executive chef and food safety manager at South Point Hotel, released Allergen Awareness: A Chef’s Perspective this year as a tell-all guide to help other chefs navigate the allergen waters and help guests understand what chefs can and will do for them. The book is available on Amazon.

“I wanted to share the importance with the hospitality group,” Norman said. “But I also want to have the customers, teach them to talk to us when they come in. They need to speak up.”

As Norman speaks regularly on the subject and is regarded as one of the foremost experts, he hopes the book eventually establishes an international reach and helps people across the globe dine safely.

“Part of the issue in the hospitality industry is not enough people are talking about allergens,” Norman said. He mentioned Serena Williams and former NFL running back Jerome Bettis as two people who have allergies and could be more vocal.

“I don’t think we have enough voices,” he said. “We need more voices. It’s not talked about enough. You see commercials about smoking and drug problems, and rightfully so, but 15 million people have life threatening allergies, and you don’t see enough about it.”

It all started in 2009 when Norman set out to create a culture of safe meals at South Point, ensuring the customers aren’t viewed just for their money, but their enjoyment. He wants customers to trust restaurants and not have to fear for their, or their children’s, lives every time they come to dine. 

Norman’s been presenting on the topic of allergen safety for years, and eventually began to write his own book on the issue, taking two-and-a-half years to put it together. The book’s most important message is stressing the importance of building a culture around allergens. Norman explains it all starts with the executives, who can empower the rest of the staff to do whatever it takes to ensure all customers will dine in safety. 

“Once my team knows I have their back, they buy into it and embrace the guest,” Norman said. “We have systems in place and we now know how to deal with allergen guests and are embracing a life that’s entrusted to them.

“We live it here, we breath it here, we do it every day here.”

The book also includes recipes and information about Chef Norman, who helped South Point Hotel serve 13,000 allergen-friendly meals last year between 11 restaurants. South Point was named the 2017 Best Overall Food Allergy Program for Restaurants for Outstanding Commitment to Food Allergy Safety and Awareness.

Norman has been a chef for nearly 30 years, after spending 10 years in the Marine Corps and moving to Las Vegas in 1988. He’s had the opportunity to open five different properties before finding a home at South Point.

Norman doesn’t have any allergens himself, nor do his children, so he doesn’t personally live an allergen-free lifestyle, but his compassion for others has shown him the way that life is lived. He speaks specifically of one customer who has dined with him safely many times, who is 98 percent allergic to most things and has been resuscitated nine times. “How can you not want to do everything in your power to keep those babies safe,” he said.

Through the culture Norman’s built at South Point, every person in the front and back of the house is allergen certified. He knows that’s a bit of a tall task. “I don’t expect restaurants to certify everyone, but I’m fortunate our owner was supportive and allowed me to spend that money,” Norman said. “But I want them to talk through a plan and introduce the idea to a team; it’s step by step. If you stay diligent, and have a plan in place, eventually it gets to the point of, ‘Wow, that
was easy.’”

In his culture of allergen awareness, it’s zero tolerance. He doesn’t accept risk takers, those who have sensitivities but are willing to attempt to dine. “Risk takers are those who say, ‘I have a diary allergy, but it’s not that serious,’” he said. “For us, our policy says once you tell me, no means no. We have options, but we won’t give them to you.”

So much of Norman’s work is driven for care of people. His goal for the book is just to make more people aware and diligent in preparation for meals and he hopes it can help inspire more people with allergens to be vocal in the issue.

“There’s no cure and we don’t know what causes allergens,” he said. “We just need more voices.”