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How To Get A Job As A Culinary Director w/ Nate Keller (Ex-Google)

March 8, 2024

There’s so much competition in the culinary world and very few high-level culinary director jobs to go around. So, how do aspiring culinarians separate themselves from the rest of the pack and land a culinary director job?

We talked to long-time culinary expert and former culinary director at Google, Nate Keller, to answer some of the top questions about being a culinary director and what it takes to get hired.

What we’ll cover:

  • What does a culinary director do?
  • What skills and experience do I need?
  • How can I get hired as a culinary director?

Keep reading to learn more about Nate's culinary journey and his insider tips for positioning yourself as an ideal culinary director candidate.

Nate’s Journey to Culinary Director

Nate Keller is a seasoned culinary expert with over three decades of experience in the industry. His career trajectory is an inspiration to culinary leaders from all backgrounds.

He started his career as a chef in fine dining restaurants, then went on to become a consultant and business owner before scoring culinary director roles in corporate catering and dining, including at Comcast.

“I was chef at Google, and I left, and I started my own catering company,” he says. “But I also did consulting work, where I was opening restaurants, was a purchaser for this huge school food company, and set up a program for a children's camp.”

Nate is now a member of the customer success team at Galley, where he leverages his expertise to help culinary teams worldwide digitize their food data and optimize their workflows with a culinary operating system.

What Does a Culinary Director Do?

Instead of being immersed in the daily chaos of the kitchen, culinary directors take on a strategic role, focusing more on the business aspects of the food program and less on the food itself.

For example, as Executive Director of Corporate Hospitality at Comcast, Nate oversaw all food outlets (corporate cafes, popups, catering, etc), collaborating with the chefs to keep their menus fresh and aligned with the program’s long-term goals.

He’d conduct testing to gauge interest in any new menu items. Nate recalls organizing mini catering expos where department heads could try these new items and encourage their teams to visit the corporate dining locations.

Rather than getting bogged down in the day-to-day kitchen operations, he explains that the culinary director is in charge of “fostering the business side of things and leading the direction of the overall program.”

“The culinary director is the person who is envisioning the long-term strategy for the program,” explains Nate. “They’re asking, ‘What's going to happen this year?’ ‘What's going to happen next year?’ ‘What's going to happen in the next five years?’”

He suggests thinking of it this way: the culinary director is the captain of the ship, providing direction to the executive chef(s) on where they need to go and why. The executive chef is responsible for steering the boat in the correct direction and inspiring the cooks to follow their captain.

It's worth noting that this strategic leadership role often comes with competitive pay. The culinary director salary range in the US typically falls between $100K and $164K per year.

Top Skills Required to be a Culinary Director

There are a few essential qualifications and skills that Nate recommends people have before considering applying for a culinary director job. 

Before all else, he says that to be an effective culinary director, “you still need to know about food and you need to know how the kitchen runs, but you need to know that only so you can point it in the right direction.”

Many people will complete a rewarding career as chefs, and that’s okay! But to be a culinary director, he emphasizes that you need to have more of a business mindset than an “I'm going to make this food” mindset.

Nate strongly recommends getting comfortable using digital culinary tools like Galley that help culinary leaders measure, understand, and optimize their operations. Being able to make the case that you can not only organize the operation, but also use data to make it run smoother and smoother can elevate you above the competition.. 

“You have to be able to communicate with kitchen staff, but you should not be in the kitchen,” he adds. “You have to be ready to say, ‘I’m not picking up the knives, there's no white coat for me.’”

By being willing to take a step back, you get a better high-level perspective of the food program to ensure you’ve set the boat in the right direction.

Culinary directors should have a strong sense of leadership to create a plan, delegate it to their chefs, and stay the course. This role involves being skilled in long-term planning and forward-thinking to plan months and years ahead.

Nate also mentions that culinary director jobs require having a good handle on financial bookkeeping, especially in larger culinary operations. Not only this, but you need to understand how your inventory and budget fits into the long-term plan. 

There’s More Than One Way to Become Culinary Director

There's a common misconception that career growth in the culinary industry follows a specific path, moving from line cook to sous chef, head chef, executive chef, and finally, culinary director. However, Nate’s journey shows us that there is more than one way to work up to a culinary director job, provided you have the right mindset and determination.

Being a culinary director is often the most obvious next step after being an executive chef. “You have to have the fundamental knowledge of how a kitchen runs, so at some point, you need to have worked in a kitchen,” explains Nate. 

That being said, you don't need executive chef experience to be a fantastic culinary director. But, if you’ve been in that role, you’ll be well-prepared for taking on a culinary director position. 

Another natural progression is from purchasing or procurement to culinary director. Nate says these roles can give you “more of a financial bookkeeping sense in terms of how you run an inventory and do bookkeeping,” essential skills to running a successful culinary operation.

Like Nate, a culinary director could also have a background in catering operations. Catering entails a lot of business sense, operational knowledge, and planning to coordinate catering food to businesses at a large scale.

Landing a Culinary Director Job

The road to becoming a culinary director isn’t always an easy one, so Nate has some parting advice to help you get your dream culinary director job:

Show you’re ambitious and willing to learn. Since there are so many different routes to becoming a culinary director, you might not always be able to learn all the necessary skills for the job during your day-to-day kitchen work. Nate remembers seeing a culinary director hard at work one day and immediately knew that was what he wanted to do next. He says he achieved this goal through sheer drive and determination to span the knowledge gap.

He encourages aspiring culinary leaders to embrace a mindset of continuous learning and growth and always look for opportunities to take on new skills and responsibilities: “I would look for opportunities that sounded interesting when there was something new I wanted to learn, and then go do it until I felt that I wanted to do something else,” says Nate.

Give it your all, but find a good balance. Nate suggests seeking opportunities that align with your interests and professional development goals, and don’t be afraid to branch out of your comfort zone to learn new skills. This may involve stepping out of the kitchen to gain a deeper knowledge of purchasing or culinary bookkeeping.

He says to learn and give as much as possible to each opportunity, but “I don't want to say you should be putting everything into it because you have to have a life too, and that's something I definitely learned along the way.” Always be asking yourself what you’re giving and what you’re getting back to avoid stagnation. “Once I felt that it wasn't giving back to me what I was putting into it, then I would go somewhere else and just try to level up [each time],” says Nate.

Position yourself as a technology leader. In an era of shrinking margins and fierce competition, more businesses are looking for innovative ways to improve their operational efficiency and cut costs. Mastering culinary operating systems like Galley is a valuable skill that can make you a highly sought-after candidate for a culinary director role.

By showcasing your knowledge and expertise in modern culinary tools, you can demonstrate your ability to help potential employers streamline their operations and drive significant growth.

Your proficiency in these tools can set you apart from the competition and position yourself as a forward-thinking leader in the culinary world. See how Galley’s culinary operating system can help you excel as a culinary director with a personalized demo.

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