In 2001, I wrote my first prep list by hand as a young Sous Chef at Google. I never would have imagined I would even be doing that when I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America In 1999. It was the first steps of a wild journey that led me to start a corporate catering company, to build a team that pioneered the ghost kitchen delivery model in San Francisco, and to lead an $85M dining program at a major corporation, and to meet innumerable amazing people.
I wish I could say I carefully engineered my career, that I crafted a clever strategy, and somehow masterminded it all. But the reality is a lot simpler than that. I was lucky and I said yes to interesting albeit risky opportunities.
I was a hotshot, arrogant chef. That was fine when I was a young culinarian looking for the next thing to conquer, but over time as I and my responsibilities grew, that attitude burned me quite a few times.
Looking back, there’s a lot of things I wish young Nate could have known earlier in my career. Things that would have helped me perform better in my work, kept me from a lot of stress and headaches, and would have made me a better Culinarian and a better human.
I’d like to share some of the lessons learned, and how they’ve brought me to a new place in my culinary journey that, in 2023, I could have never imagined.
Growing Google’s Food Program Was Highly Manual
When I joined Google as the Sous Chef, nearly every part of mine, and everyone’s job around me, was highly manual. We took inventory, wrote prep lists, and cooked on the fly, no recipe, just cooking great food. We had a new menu every single day. Literally hundreds and hundreds of menus and potential recipes written in a word doc and then forgotten. All of that work, all of that information lost in the fast-paced world we were living in.
We were serving some of the most brilliant people in our country who spent their days creating and tweaking complex algorithms, and I was in the back doing napkin math to figure out how much pasta to make. The contrast was humorous, and also frustrating.
As we opened additional cafe locations, the amount of handwriting and math work we were doing became unmanageable.
I approached a few engineers and asked if they could help us create a system to better manage our culinary operation’s data and processes, but it was a problem too small for a world-changer like an early Google engineer to address. We ended up building our own file-sharing and spreadsheet system. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was better than spending all day with paper and pen.
That experience played a huge role in my desire to push the limits of culinary efficiency through smarter applications of technology. It was proof that a more sustainable industry is possible, and tech can help us get there.
I left Google in 2008, sad to leave an incredible team, but inspired to say ‘yes’ to new opportunities.
Getting in Early on Corporate Catering and Ghost Kitchens
After an inspiring trip to Europe to attend a slow food festival, I co-founded Gastronaut. I started out with the idea that we would build a kitchen and figure out what we were doing as that was happening. When an ex-Googler contacted us about a potential opportunity, he got us a chance to serve our first meal at Jack Dorsey’s apartment. We ended up delivering 1000’s of meals per day to Twitter, Square, Yelp, and a handful of other startup campuses, as well as traditional catering for weddings, parties and even meal kits for Holidays and Burning Man. We were on our way to $5M ARR, but eventually closed the catering business down due to burnout.
Soon after, I joined Sprig, one of the first true virtual restaurants, as the founding culinary director. At our peak, we were producing and delivering thousands of meals to customers across San Francisco. All with the promise to get a hot meal, delivered to your door in 20 minutes. The pressure to maximize efficiency was brought to a whole new level.
That’s when I met an engineer named Benji Koltai. We were chatting over lunch one day and I was lamenting over the fact that I was buried in data entry work and wasn’t able to be in the kitchen where I should be. He was the first person to hear and understand that this was actually a fairly large issue in our industry. Soon after he grabbed a hairnet, put himself in the kitchen and went on to build V0 of Galley. As margins got tighter (as did VC money) Sprig closed its virtual doors. Benji went on to found Galley Solutions.
I moved back into corporate catering as the culinary director of Zesty, a service that connected restaurants with catering opportunities. While I was there, we kept noticing that there were large gaps in the market (like delivering a salad bar), but our restaurant partners weren’t able to take advantage of them. We ended up taking some learnings from Gastronaut and Sprig, and created a handful of menus that we did all of the prep work for under Zesty—early virtual brands.
When Caviar acquired Zesty, I moved to Comcast as the Director of Corporate Dining—a complete circle back to the cooperation dining world.
Five Lessons I Learned The Hard Way
I have no shortage of important lessons learned across my career, but for your sake, I’ll keep it to just a few.
Arrogance is a great limiter, but curiosity opens endless doors.
This was a hard one for me. I had grand ideas of domination, and I knew my way around a culinary operation. But it wasn’t those things that were the great propellers of my journey—I learned that you have to embrace curiosity and openness. This mindset shift helped me to become more innovative. It also helped me to continue to grow and improve as a leader, and as a person generally. Always stay curious and never stop learning. It's the only way to stay ahead of the curve and make a meaningful impact in the industry.
Food is a team sport.
In my early hotshot days, I was more focused on how I could impress others, rather than what I could learn from them. Now I see how funny that is. Nearly everything I achieved is because of what I learned from others around me. There were always partners, supporters, and team mates that I leaned on, even when I didn’t realize it. I owe everything to the people around me who helped open doors and solve problems, and paying that forward is deeply rewarding.
We can’t afford the high cost of our food.
There’s an incredibly large amount of waste at every step of the supply chain. Migrant food pickers, factory workers, and restaurant staff aren’t paid very well, nor treated well. The real cost of food is much higher than what we pay at restaurants and grocery stores. We have to take action to be better caretakers for our world and communities through prioritizing sustainable sourcing, minimizing food waste, running healthier businesses, paying our teams living wages, and creating better work environments.
Our kitchens don’t feature enough sincerity, humility, and kindness.
Countless incredible people have been lost to addiction, suicide and poverty due to how unforgiving a place like a commercial kitchen can be. The hours are hard, the margin for error is slim, and the pressure stacks up. Working in a setting that’s stuck in toxic mode isn’t worth it. It’s always up to culinary leaders to choose kindness, humility, and sincerity in the operation and team—Your people are your most valuable ingredient to success.
Take every chance you have to increase efficiency.
We’re squeezed from all sides to make food financially sustainable, and it seems to just be getting worse. Costs are rising, increasing competition in sparking a margin race to the bottom in some verticals, and workers are leaving hospitality in droves for safer pastures. We’re in a crisis era that the status quo won’t save us from. The only way out of it is to continue to rediscover and reimagine how we plan, prep, serve and think about our food.
Galley: My Next Medium for Innovation and Progress
I continued to watch Galley grow, keeping in close contact with the team, advising and helping along the way. I always knew I wanted to be on board. Finally, in 2021, I joined customer success at Galley Solutions, the culinary operating system concept that I dreamed up with Benji back in the Sprig days.
Rather than directing culinary operations, I now get to help dozens of culinary teams around the world digitize and centralize their food data. We get a deep-dive look into this, and I love being able to have a meaningful impact on all of our customers. It’s cathartic in a way, solving challenges for folks that I’ve faced my entire career.
There are many young Nates out there who know they have to lead their departments and teams in a new direction characterized by operational clarity and efficiency—giving them the frameworks and tools to do that is deeply rewarding.
That’s what Galley represents, a new medium to try new things, break norms and barriers, and help drive as many people as possible toward a better culinary world. It’s about profitability, but beyond that, it’s caring for our planet, stewarding our resources, and making the world a better place for the people who live on it.