Tales From The Trenches: Restaurant Legends
Texas is a land that creates legends and our industry is no exception. Laugh, marvel, and learn as legendary leaders in the Texas restaurant industry share how and why they got into the business, what obstacles they overcame, and what their hopes, dreams and fears are for the future of their businesses and ours.
Norman Abdallah, Chief Executive Officer and President of Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group, is highly regarded as a strategic and results-driven restaurant executive with a strong entrepreneurial work ethic. Prior to joining Del Frisco’s, Norman was the operating partner for CIC Partners. Before CIC, Norman served as an interim CEO of Dinosaur BBQ. Prior to this, Norman led the turnaround at Romano's Macaroni Grill that resulted in a sale to Ignite Restaurant Group. Before joining Macaroni Grill as CEO and President in July 2010, Norman held the same position at Sun Capital owned Restaurants Unlimited, a $200 million multi-concept company consisting of 14 brands. Previously, he was the CEO and Co-Founder of Fired Up, Inc., parent company of U.S.-based casual dining chain Carino’s Italian.
Norman serves on the Board of Directors for Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group. He is also on the Board of the National Restaurant Association.
Chef Kaiser Lashkari received his masters degree from Hilton College of Hotel & Restaurant Management in 1989 before opening Himalaya Restaurant & Catering. Lashkari originated from Pakistan, where he draws inspiration and care for the flavors in his food. Chef Kaiser was a James Beard Semi-Finalist in 2019, and Himalaya was rated No. 9 in the Houston Chronicle’s “Top 100 Houston Restaurants” list, and has placed in the top 15 in previous years. He can be found most often in Himalaya’s kitchen when he is not out greeting guests.
Tracy Vaught may been as an “accidental restaurateur” when she tried her hand at the hospitality industry more than 35 years ago, but she is now one of the most respected in the field. The geologist-turned-restaurateur owns/operates H Town Restaurant Group which includes four of Houston's most successful, award-winning restaurants - Backstreet Cafe, Hugo’s, Caracol and Xochi. Vaught and James Beard Award-winning husband Chef Hugo Ortega have published two cookbooks, Hugo Ortega’s Street Food of Mexico and Backstreet Kitchen: Seasonal Recipes From Our Neighborhood Cafe. She is a three-time semi-finalist for Restaurateur of the Year for James Beard Awards, named 2003 Restaurateur of the Year at Houston Culinary Awards, and recognized in 2017 for her work by Houston Business Journal’s Women Mean Business Awards. In 2008, coinciding with Vaught’s 25th anniversary in the business, she was honored with a Texas Restaurant Association Outstanding Restaurateur of the Year Houston Chapter award.
Emily Williams Knight
Knight has more than 20 years of experience and success in national and global leadership positions and is the newly appointed CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association. Most recently, she was the Managing Director of Higher Education North America at Study Group, a leading provider of international education. Her career includes senior leadership roles at Laureate Education and serving as President of Kendall College, a leader in hospitality and culinary arts education. During her time as Kendall’s president, Knight expanded access to culinary education throughout the Midwest, Latin America and the Middle East. She worked closely with the Illinois legislature to advance the industry and partnered with the Mayor of Chicago, Choose Chicago, and the Illinois Restaurant Association to drive Chicago visitors to a record 50 million per year.
Knight has extensive experience working with industry, workforce investment boards, and community colleges to create skills training programs designed to fill the growing number of restaurant and hospitality job openings. Early in her career, Knight held several leadership roles at Pearson, including head of marketing for teacher education and head of sales for the west region. Out of undergraduate studies, she was recruited into Pizza Hut’s Management Training Program and also served as a Catering Sales and Event Manager for Marriott’s Key West Resorts.
Knight holds a Doctorate in Higher Education Leadership from Walden University; an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Newbury College; a Master of Science in Management from Troy University in Alabama; a B.S. in Hospitality Administration from Boston University, where she was a Trustee Scholar and an A.S. in Hotel and Restaurant Administration from Newbury College where she was a Presidential Scholar and captain of the women’s basketball team.
Additionally, Dr. Knight is a member of several boards, including the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF), where she serves as the chair of the governance committee and is a member of the executive and strategic planning committees.