Chefs Collaborative is an organization that works to educate chefs and create a network to promote responsible and sustainable ways to source, cook and serve food. This Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, the group is hosting its annual Sustainable Food Summit in Boulder, with a targeted theme of "Moving mountains, scaling change." In layman's terms, this just means figuring out how to source food and grow food businesses without turning to destructive, unsafe or inhumane practices. Among the events on the summit's program is "Scale, not a four letter word," featuring local food luminaries Kimbal Musk, founder of The Kitchen group of restaurants, and Bobby Stucky, owner of Frasca Food and WIne. Nate Appleman, culinary manager of Chipotle, will also be on the panel, discussing the burrito chain's dedication to maintaining its goal of "food with integrity," even with over 1,600 restaurants worldwide.
Appleman rose to celebrity status a few years ago thanks to his work at lauded San Francisco restaurants A16 and SPQR, as well as a James Beard award for Rising Star Chef and appearances on the Food Network. But then he decided to cast his lot with Chipotle, based on his shared interest in sustainable agriculture and humane farming practices.
Appleman uses the vegetarian sofritas burrito, featuring tofu as its protein, as an example how he's helped Chipotle hew to its mission. He joined the company as it was preparing to launch its ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen concept and quickly became involved in sourcing tofu for the menu. "Only 10 percent of soy (in the U.S.) is not grown for feed," the chef points out, and finding non-GMO soy beans is exceedingly difficult.
He and Tim Wildin of ShopHouse partnered with organic, non-GMO Hodo Soy to source the tofu. Part of the directive from company founder Steve Ells, says Appleman, is to "make it work." And by that he means make it responsible and make it fit with Chipotle's philosophy. Appleman was able to accomplish several goals with the sofritas burrito: adding a vegetarian option to the menu, making more use of tofu from Hodo to help keep costs down, and partnering with a company committed to responsible farming.
The Sofritas burrito, one of the first completely new items added to the menu since the Chipotle's flagship opened in Denver in the early '90s, was rolled out slowly over the past year in part to allow a network of organic soy farmers to develop. That mirrors the relationship with other Chipotle suppliers, including Niman Ranch, which first partnered with Chipotle in 2001 to supply antibiotic- and hormone-free meat. (Niman Ranch CEO Jeff Tripician will also be on the panel.)
Appleman points out that ShopHouse's menu uses different cuts of meat than Chipotle, so more of each pig and cow can be used.
ShopHouse's growth has been slow: The flagship store in Washington, D.C., ran for two years before a second location was added. The chain is now closing in on ten stores, though, with the Asian concept poised to spread beyond its current Los Angeles and D.C.-area locations.
When he took the Chipotle job, Appleman started out rolling burritos and washing dishes -- despite his background in high-end, high-profile cuisine. "Ninety-eight percent of our managers come from inside," he explains, adding that those who come from the outside often don't make it; Ells wanted to make sure he knew the company and the operation of a single store from the ground up first.
"Chipotle does not stray from its mission," he adds, now when it comes to its employees or the food it serves. Now he's in a position to oversee and influence "the sheer volume (of food) and how we manage that."
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That will be a big part of the panel's conversation, which takes place at the Boulder Theater at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, September 30. For a list of other events during the Summit, see the schedule on the Chefs Collaborative website.