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How To Get A Job As An Executive Chef w/ Nate Keller (Ex-Google)

The current job market in the culinary industry is highly competitive, with so many aspiring and emerging chefs vying for a limited number of leadership roles.

The role of executive chef is particularly sought-after. So, we talked to a seasoned culinarian, Nate Keller, to learn more about the role and how you can score your dream executive chef job.

What we’ll cover:

  • What does an executive chef do?
  • What skills does an aspiring executive chef need?
  • How can I get an edge in my career on the way to becoming an executive chef?

Read on to hear his insights and advice on becoming an executive chef and how to set yourself up for success.

Meet Expert Culinarian, Nate Keller

Nate Keller graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1999 and worked in fine-dining restaurants until he joined Google's corporate food service team in 2001. During his time at Google, where he moved up to the role of Culinary Director, he discovered his passion for using technology to improve culinary efficiency.

Over the next 20 years, Nate started his own catering company, consulted for large-scale dining programs, and worked as culinary director for a virtual restaurant and a corporate catering company. He later joined Comcast as Executive Director of Corporate Hospitality before joining the Galley customer success team in 2021.

Nate's experience in both restaurant and corporate dining provides a unique perspective for those looking to become a corporate executive chef. In his experience, he says that the corporate dining scene is ideal for people looking for more standard 9-5 hours and a better work-life balance. 

“People generally get into [corporate dining] because they're tired of the restaurant rat race, not seeing their families, or not having a family,” he says, “They’re tired of not having weekends off, holidays, having health insurance, and real vacation time.”

Nate encourages chefs to look past the outdated stigma that corporate dining is “cafeteria food” and offers fewer artistic opportunities. He believes that chefs can still showcase their creativity no matter the dining setting.

What it Means to be a Corporate Executive Chef

To better understand the role of the executive chef in the culinary industry, Nate suggests thinking of it this way: the executive chef is the lead in the band, while the culinary director is the conductor. 

“The executive chef is on the ground, in the kitchen, leading the team, and ideally, leading the vision and morale of that kitchen to ensure that the food is good and your inventory is solid,” says Nate. “You have to be aware of everything that's going on in the kitchen.”

They’re often responsible for high-level kitchen duties, including menu development, overseeing the rest of the kitchen staff, and adhering to food safety rules. Since they sit at the top of the kitchen hierarchy, an executive chef salary can range from $67K to $85K, or upwards of $108K per year.

Meanwhile, the culinary director works from outside the kitchen as the long-term strategy holder for the food program. They relay these plans to the executive chef, who then leads their kitchen staff to implement them.

But what does an executive chef do in a corporate setting as opposed to in a restaurant? Nate says it takes an entirely different mindset to work in corporate dining.

“At a restaurant, you can control every aspect of the food experience,” says Nate. “In the large corporate setting, your time window for setting that experience is very short, so you want to create an experience that will keep people interested.”

Executive chef jobs require you to be creative and forward-thinking to create an experience that keeps those same people coming back every day. This is especially true if you’re in a big city competing with other eateries outside the workplace walls.

When Nate was at Google, he remembers changing their menus daily and creating a themed experience based on what was happening then.

For example, one year during the World Cup, they created a fusion lunch menu for the two soccer teams playing that day. “The fun part was that we didn't know what the next one was going to be,” he says. “So we waited until the games were set, and then we'd create the menu around it.”

Nate adds that successful corporate executive chefs “start to look at menus, not so much as ‘This is an expression of me,’ but ‘Here's an expression of what we want that experience to be.’”

Becoming an Executive Chef: Key Qualifications and Skills

“It's table stakes that you have to be a good chef,” says Nate. “You have to be creative, which means you have to be able to come up with your own dishes.”

However, being creative in a corporate dining setting means keeping the menu new, exciting, and fresh even though it's the same captive audience each day.

“Sometimes people just want a burger every day, and you have to make a burger every day,” says Nate. “But how do you make those things interesting for you and the customer?”

More often than not, most culinarians come into corporate dining from a restaurant situation. If you’re coming from that environment, Nate says having a good handle on business strategy and kitchen operation principles is essential.

Proficiency in a culinary operating system like Galley is a big plus on your resume for an executive chef job. This shows you already have foundational operational skills like costing, budgeting, and sourcing to optimize efficiency and profitability. 

“You have to understand inventory principles and have a general awareness of what’s going on in the walk-in,” explains Nate. You need to know what inventory is available and what to use to avoid waste and adhere to food safety principles. 

“To be an executive chef, in [a corporate] situation, you have to have really good managerial skills,” adds Nate. A hundred things are going on at once in a kitchen, and an executive chef should be aware of everything but also be able to focus on the task at hand. Patience and calm in high-stress situations, clear communication and delegation, the ability to straddle the line between disciplined and personable leader—these interpersonal skills are critical.

How to Know When You’re Ready to be an Executive Chef

“If you're looking at a group of cooks, and you're trying to figure out who's going to be next in line, you would look for the person that not only does their job but is also there to assist anyone else who needs help,” explains Nate.

Top candidates get there early to complete their tasks correctly and efficiently, which frees them up to help others and showcases their organizational skills—all essential qualities for aspiring executive chefs.

Besides this, Nate looks for chefs who take initiative and have a greater awareness of what's happening in the kitchen and walk-in, going beyond their own to-do list.

For example, he says this could look like a “cook coming to me and saying, ‘Chef, I just noticed we have three extra cases of chicken. What do you think about running fried chicken, or what do you think if I do this dish instead?’”

A successful executive chef candidate is a person who’s always asking ‘How can I help?” They’re the cooks confident in their abilities to do their job well, ask for more responsibilities, and still exceed expectations while helping others. 

Pro Tips For How to Get a Job as an Executive Chef 

Positioning yourself for success as an executive chef involves taking a proactive and positive approach. The biggest piece of advice Nate has is this: “Raise your hand, ask questions, and say yes.”

He says that standout executive chef candidates express their eagerness and willingness to take on more responsibilities. “Show up like you want to be there, not the guy that comes in upset all the time and complains about what they have to do,” adds Nate.

This person truly enjoys their job and wants to take the next step in their career. “I got as far as I did in my career because I was always the one asking, ‘What can I do? How can I help? Chef, what's next?’” says Nate.

In Nate’s experience, it’s almost always the people putting in the work and asking for the role that will get it. He remembers being very upfront about his desire to become executive chef and it didn’t matter if he wasn’t “next in line” based on seniority.

“People that were in the same line as me would sometimes get mad that I was ready for more because they’d been there longer,” says Nate. Compared to his fellow cooks, he put in more effort and was always eager to help others, which helped him to secure the position of executive chef.

Nate’s last, but certainly not least, advice is to become familiar with modern culinary systems like Galley to show that you have the skills and expertise to run a high-performing kitchen operation.

Discover how Galley’s culinary operating system can help provide you with marketable skills to become a successful executive chef with a personalized demo.

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