Assistant Executive Chef of the South Point Hotel and Casino
FoodASC Member since 2016
Please tell us about yourself and why you are interested in food allergies and sensitivities.
I was raised by my grandmother, Big Ma. As she aged, my grandmother encouraged me and my brothers to help her in the kitchen. Seeing her care, passion and love for food over the years rubbed off on all of us. Big Ma was my initial inspiration to enter the culinary field.
As a chef, it is my responsibility to have an advanced awareness of food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities that affect my food allergic guests.As a chef, it is my responsibility to have an advanced awareness of food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities that affect my food allergic guests.Click To Tweet
In 2009, I met the Gordon family who was dining at the hotel. After speaking with them, I was invited to speak at the 2010 FAAN Conference which was an eye opener. I met Eleanor Holding and other amazing folks from FAAN which began my journey of interacting with experts that live it every single day. I have participated in two walks for a cure here in Las Vegas, and was honored to work with the late Senator Debbie Smith and other wonderful advocates to make changes here in Nevada to protect the lives of people with life threatening food allergies.
Currently, I am a board member of FAACT, Stop Foodborne Illness and the National Restaurant Association. I am often out in the community spreading awareness through talks and trainings with hotels, restaurants, the American Culinary Federation, the local health department and local schools.
Please tell us about your profession.
Currently, I oversee the Food Safety and Allergen Programs at the South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. I also consult and train food industry personnel at the hotels for the Food Allergy Bloggers Conference and Food Allergen Anaphylaxis Connection Team Conference. Occasionally, I speak at the Southern Nevada Health District Industry Meetings where I provide local food establishments first-hand information to help them serve their food allergic guests.
Over the years, I have noticed my fellow chefs view providing reasonable accommodations to food allergic guests as an inconvenience. Actually, with a pro-active plan, food allergies can be managed safely with minimal interruption to service. Here at the South Point we have a loyal following. We have made many friends not only locally but around the country who eat their meals at South Point even when staying at other hotels. On the plus side as a chef there is an unspeakable bond, a connection to the guest and family. When you gain a food allergic guest’s trust, you have a guest/friend for life.
Inspired by my personal and professional experiences with members of the food allergy community, I began writing a book from my perspective as a chef approximately two years ago. My book, Allergen Awareness a Chef’s Perspective, is intended to not only touch the heart strings of the reader but to give other chefs a road map. The book covers my journey as a chef, how I started and where that experience has taken me. The main focus is Allergen Awareness and provides tools that chefs and restaurant staff can use as a blueprint. The book is in the final stages of production and I look forward to publishing in early 2018.
Describe a challenging experience you had related to food allergies and your lessons learned.
As a chef having dealt with food allergies for years, the biggest challenges are guest who don’t make us aware of their food restrictions or guests who I call the risk takers. The risk takers, who initially make us aware of their food allergies, later say that a little of the food won’t hurt them and insist on eating the particular food. These are often the guests who become mad when we refrain from serving them the food, not realizing that our procedures are written with their safety in mind. I have learned that allergen lives matter and regardless I have a professional obligation to keep the guest safe. As a result, no means no with a reasonable option.
Describe a rewarding experience you had related to food allergies.
I have many heartwarming stories. Many food allergic guest who have dined with me have walked away with the “wow” feeling because they or their children were able to dine safely and were able to let down their guard, if only for 90 minutes. The wow feeling is what many guests/friends have conveyed to me or my team. “Wow” you cared enough to take the time to keep us safe.
Nothing, however, compares to seeing a child eat at one of my restaurants for the first time. Hearing “I felt so safe eating here”, seeing the look on their faces and feeling the gratitude from the family creates an experience which is indescribable. I call those my heart moments.
What motivates you to do what you do?
I am blessed with two amazing kids. I ask myself, not only regarding food allergies but with many other diseases that affect children, what if? What if I had to live it, what would I do? I do for others what I would want done if I lived it on a daily basis. I would want someone to advocate and work tirelessly to help keep my children safe. Allergen families don’t have a choice, but I do. I chose to do everything in my power to change the narrative surrounding food allergies as it relates to the culinary environment.I chose to do everything in my power to change the narrative surrounding food allergies as it relates to the culinary environment.Click To Tweet
Do you have a go-to resource? If so, what is it and why is it useful?
Moms and Dads who live with allergies on a daily basis are the absolute best resource and I am blessed to have a rolodex of experts who have guided me over the years. As I like to say, the best classroom for learning about food allergies is from those who live it.
What do you wish other people knew about food allergies and what’s one action that can be performed to increase knowledge and awareness in the general population?
I would hope that every allergy family (risk takers) would take the time to educate themselves, use the resources available to have a thorough understanding of their allergies and the risk involved when dining out.
My hope for chefs and those working in the hospitality industry is that they would take the opportunity to embrace food allergic guests with an open mind and heart, that they would invest the time, money and effort into training so that they create an allergen culture in their respective restaurants. With eleven restaurants at the South Point Hotel and Casino, we embrace approximately 3000 guests a year. With planning and commitment, it is 100% doable with no impact on service.
As a chef I know that training is key to safely serving food allergic guests. When I go to a guest’s table it is an opportunity to educate and if more chefs and culinarians looked at it that way, we would be so much further. Chefs need to educate themselves, take a course, get certified and then require that for their teams. Implement a plan of action, create a Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) that covers every critical point in the flow of that allergen meal and then train, train, train until it becomes second nature.
What advice would you give to someone just embarking upon this journey?
Communicate, ask questions, do not take chances and no matter what, educate yourself. Join some of the online allergy groups, attend a conference and source local support groups. Knowledge is power.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know?
I am honored and humbled to be a part of so many amazing allergy warriors. I look forward to continuing to spread awareness in the community and abroad, training and advocating for the allergen families. Thank you, Donna for the opportunity to share.
Thank you Keith for being part of our Member Spotlight! Have any more questions for Keith? Ask them in the comments below.
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