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In fact, Chipotle will serve more than fifteen million pounds of locally grown produce in its restaurants this year, up from its 2012 goal of ten million pounds. "As the only national restaurant company with a significant commitment to using local produce on a large scale, we've steadily increased our locally sourced produce supply since beginning the program in 2008," says Ells. All of Chipotle's locally grown produce comes from within 350 miles of the restaurants where it's served. To celebrate that commitment and educate its eaters, Chipotle started Cultivate, a free food, ideas and music festival, which will celebrate its third year in Denver on August 17. But in the meantime, in honor of its twentieth anniversary, Chipotle is offering customers around the globe the chance to win free Chipotle — for life. (The Adventurrito contest starts July 13; go to westword.com for details.)

"We push ourselves to find the best-quality ingredients — ingredients that have traditionally been available only in high-end restaurants and specialty food markets — and making them available in a way that's accessible and affordable to everyone, which I think is a really important mission," concludes Ells, who in the following interview discusses the significance of high expectations, a frivolous lawsuit and his partnership with McDonald's, which started in 1998 and ended in 2006, when he took the company public.

Lori Midson: Talk about your upbringing. Was food an important element when you were young?

Steve Ells: I started cooking early on, as a very young child, so food and cooking have been important to me for as long as I can remember. I always liked to help my mom in the kitchen, and while other kids were watching cartoons and things, I was watching Julia Child. By the time I was in high school and college, I loved having dinner parties and entertaining friends over food. Many of my oldest memories involve food and the whole dining experience.

You graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and spent several years as a chef before opening Chipotle and becoming a household name in entrepreneurial restaurant-industry circles. Do you miss cooking?

I've always loved to cook, but I've moved on to do other things. I opened Chipotle with the idea of using it as a cash cow to help me finance a "real restaurant" — the kind of place that was like Stars in San Francisco. But as Chipotle has grown, so, too, has our influence, and we're having more of an impact on the way people eat than I ever would have had if I'd stuck with my original plan. I still love to cook quite a bit, but I really like where I am now and what I'm doing.

Who's on the short list of chefs/restaurateurs who have most influenced you?

There are so many, but Jeremiah Tower, at Stars in San Francisco, had a lot of influence on me. When I graduated from cooking school, I went to work at Stars, which was one of my favorite restaurants in the country at the time, and that's where I really learned to cook and to taste food in a discerning way. There have been a lot of other chefs I've admired since then, but the experience at Stars was really important to me.

What are your ingredient obsessions?

Can I say chipotle peppers? We use chipotles in so much of our food — in the marinade for the chicken and steak, the beans and the carnitas. I've always thought there was a lot of depth of flavor and nuances to them, and I named the restaurant after the chipotle pepper because it's in so many of our recipes — and because I think its properties have been elevated and are really representative of what we do with the food in our restaurants.

What is your favorite piece of kitchen equipment?

Sharp knives.

What are your favorite ingredients to work with?

Whatever's fresh and really great quality. More often than not, it's more important to build around the best ingredients you can rather than trying to find something specific.

What food trend would you like to see in 2013?

From the Chipotle perspective, I've never really paid much attention to food trends. In our twenty years in business, we've seen a lot of trends come and go, but we've always stayed true to what we've done since the beginning. Ultimately, restaurants and cooking should be about great ingredients, classic cooking techniques and an extraordinary dining experience. Those are the things that we've always strived to achieve.

What food trend would you like to see disappear in 2013?

Anything that doesn't involve great ingredients, classic cooking and an extraordinary dining experience.

What's your temperament like?

I have very high expectations — including high expectations of myself — but I think that providing a great dining experience requires high expectations, which is something I've really tried to instill in the people working at Chipotle. Today we have more top-performing teams than ever before; that's something that Monty Moran, our co-CEO and driver of people culture, really brought to Chipotle. Having top performers who are empowered to achieve high standards is critical when you have 1,500 restaurants around the world. We need the best people we can find to make sure the experiences we're providing are the best they can be — and all of that starts with having high expectations.

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10 comments
saltwater
saltwater

I liked Chipotle for a long time. It was reasonably priced, fresh and tasty. But when they crossed a certain price point it wasn't worth it anymore especially considering the many real Mex joints there are in the region I live (SoCal).

mcjesus
mcjesus

I can't believe it's been 20 years since I laid eyes on my first JUMBO BURRITO at Twist & Shout on South Pearl Street. I remember the open foil and porno-sized burrito with a couple of bites out of it, I blurted "WHAT IS THAT?" Went down the street to Evans and got my own.

Chipotle is still my favorite of the Big Burritos.

caseyryank9
caseyryank9

'All of Chipotle's locally grown produce comes from within 350 miles of the restaurants where it's served.'

While I commend Ells for his commitment to locally sourced produce, a 350 mile range is far, very far, from being truly considered 'locally grown'. 

ctoddelvis
ctoddelvis

What I love most about Chipotle is that the meat is from humanely raised animals.  It is the only place I will eat pork.  Factory farms are hell on earth for animals and I refuse to support them.  I think Chipotle should stress more often their choice of meat suppliers and why (I've seen it written on their paper cups and heard about it on Oprah's show).  Everything I've ever eaten at Chipotle is tops in flavor and freshness, and I believe a reverence for the life of the animals we eat plays a big part in this.   

AndyPudding
AndyPudding

I am proud of the success of home-grown Chipotle, and my wife, three kids and I eat there at least twice a month. And I believe Steve is a visionary. But he's a boring interview. 

I understand that "sustainable ingredients" is a Chipotle corporate key message, but using it in nearly every answer makes it just sound tired, and saps its meaning. I wish he had an interesting anecdote or two to share, specifically when Lori asked about the best customer feedback he's received, or what his worst trait is, or something he would have done differently. 

Although he was surprisingly open about the lawsuit and immigration questions.

jackg1
jackg1

Steve actually had a wonderfully creative(and trusting) contractor who found a way to get his first restaurant open on his $40,000 construction budget, coming up with quite a few of the solutions still carried out today: the corrugated metal, bare light bulb fixtures, plumbing pipes for counter legs, etc. It was exciting working with Steve and I was proud to be involved in the beginning of what turned out to be a  wonderful adventure for him. Still waiting for that bonus.

davebarnes
davebarnes topcommenter

"When are you bringing ShopHouse, your Southeast Asian fast-food concept, to Denver?"

He did not answer the question and you let him get away with that.

mcjesus
mcjesus

@caseyryank9 Considering how much corporate produce is brought in from Chile, 350-miles is getting closer to ideal.

LoriMidsonCafeSociety
LoriMidsonCafeSociety moderator editor

@davebarnesHe answered it when he said: "We aren't getting into detailed expansion plans at this time. That said, we're excited about the prospect, as we think the people in Denver would understand and appreciate ShopHouse just like they do Chipotle." 

davebarnes
davebarnes topcommenter

You asked "When?" and he said "aren't getting into".

I would have asked "when" over and over again until he caved. But, I am tenacious.

 
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