Laura Shunk's story begins with Chipotle Mexican Grill

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Early this month, Jason Sheehan gave Chipotle Mexican Grill a glowing review in the Seattle Weekly, our partner publication where he now works -- and where the haters haven't stopped rolling their eyes and asking why he'd bother writing about such a ubiquitous fast-casual joint. His piece provided the perfect opportunity for me, his successor, to offer my own memories of Chipotle and tell our readers a little more about my experience.

My story in the food industry actually starts with Chipotle, a homegrown chain. Back in high school in Denver, I was Chipotle Girl, a superfan in the I-might-serve-this-at-my-wedding-unless-someone-saves-me-from-myself kind of way. And that eventually landed me my first internship, at the Denver office of the burrito-maker after my sophomore year of college. For the first two weeks of my eight-week post, the company sent me to work in a restaurant where I chopped onions, made guacamole and learned how to roll a burrito. Back at the office for the last six weeks, I was tasked with building hundreds of spice kits for managers, pouring juniper berries and cumin into vials that offered physical proof of the emphasis the company put on the quality and makeup of its food.

I never had another internship. My eight-week summer experience turned into a three-year-long stint in Chipotle's training department, where I became further obsessed with the company. It shaped the end of my college career, where I focused on global food systems and wrote a thesis on the romantic subject of beef importing. And I worked in what was basically a catering kitchen on campus, too, because I couldn't get enough interaction with food.

Bloggers and writers across the country are freaking out right now because Nate Appleman, a James Beard Rising Star Chef who commanded the kitchen of a high-profile New York City spot, Pulino's, just turned up at a Chelsea outpost of the fast-casual Mexican grill -- but I can't help but smile. Appleman says he'll be working closely with Chipotle CEO and founder Steve Ells, examining the already-high culinary standards of the chain. And he took the post because he sees it as a chance to make a major impact. Right on: The prospect of working through food to make sweeping global changes is a seductive job opportunity, and I completely understand why he took it.

Because beyond the marketing schtick, the Food With Integrity catchphrase and the charming entrepreneurial story behind the first store near the University of Denver (it's still open, at 1644 East Evans Avenue), I saw that Chipotle had a very real lust to improve. There was an honest-to-God desire within the corporate fabric to change the world. That's why we'd pass cookbooks around in the office, wondering what we might be able to integrate to empower employees to think more like chefs who were responsible for high-quality meals. That's why we had constant evaluations of our sources, and real, frequent discussions over what we prioritized when it came to the sustainability of our ingredients. That's why the company would shell out money to test things like wind power, building a windmill atop a restaurant in Illinois to gauge the environmental effect. And that's why the group I worked in existed at all: In addition to helping all employees understand the culture behind Chipotle's food, we were charged with figuring out how to teach every interested restaurant crew member English, helping give them the life skills they'd need to move up the ladder with the company and generally prosper in this country.

After I left Chipotle, I had a brief, ill-fated spell in management consulting, which I abandoned at the height of the recession partially because I was sick of my fellow finance-philes lamenting the end of the world. But I was also tired of having to stick around the office until midnight while New York City's restaurant scene existed, tauntingly, right outside the threshold of my building. Being a casual observer of restaurants wasn't enough anymore.

I decided to do something fun for a while. I wanted to become a sommelier, figuring that if things didn't work out, I'd at least be hanging out behind a bar somewhere, socializing and talking wine. And if things did work out? Well, I'd probably be doing the same thing, except I'd own the establishment. So I moved back to Colorado, where the exploding restaurant scene held endless promise, and I begged Bobby Stuckey for a job. I started working at Frasca Food & Wine at night -- manning the kitchen pass with the sous chef and running food while soaking up knowledge from chefs and front-of-the-house staffers alike -- and selling wine through a small fine-wine distributor during the day. I then moved over to The Kitchen, honing my skills as a server and taking no small pleasure in the moments when I got to geek out with a table about food or wine. I contemplated restaurant management and drew up plans with my brother for our own place. But as I'd already discovered from my time at Chipotle, it wasn't just one aspect of the restaurant industry I loved, it was the whole thing --- from the food sources to the kitchen that put those ingredients to use to the diner who enjoyed the end product.

Eating is one of the few things we all have to do, and that's why dining is tied to rituals, culture, politics, psychology and pleasure. Every restaurateur, every person in the industry, every eater has a different perspective, emphasis and story when it comes to food. Chipotle has a great story, and while I can identify with Sheehan's passion for the place, because of my experience with the company, I wouldn't review it (and for the same reason, I'll never review Frasca or the Kitchen). But there are many more restaurants with fascinating stories, and those are the stories I'll be telling here.

Do you have a story you want to share? E-mail me at laura.shunk@westword.com.

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