The Nature Conservancy logo. Protecting nature. Preserving life. Steve Ells is the founder, chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle Mexican Grill. Chipotle Mexican Grill is a supporter of The Nature Conservancy’s Picnic for the Planet. In addition to $100,000 in support for sustainable agriculture work, Chipotle is hosting picnics across the country and encouraging people to get outside an enjoy nature this Earth Day.

Cool Green Science Blog: What does 'food with integrity' mean and what inspired you to create a company founded on this principle?

Steve Ells: When I graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but knew I had a passion for cooking. So, I attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York and then went into the restaurant business working at Stars restaurant in San Francisco. From that experience I learned that great food and a great dining experience depends on sourcing food that is extraordinary — seasonal, local and artisanal.

When I started Chipotle in 1993, I wanted to demonstrate that just because food is served fast, doesn’t mean it needs to be typical fast food, which relies on low-cost, low-quality ingredients. “Food with integrity” is about sustainable food, responsible treatment of the land and animals. It is also based on the idea of including diners in the experience through an “open kitchen,” where you can see the ingredients and how the food is prepared. It is just like having a dinner party where everybody ends up in the kitchen.
How is Chipotle able to source responsibly grown and raised ingredients on such as large scale?

One good example of efforts to source high-quality ingredients on a large scale is our quest for better pork. As I visited various pork producers across the country, I witnessed how family farms have been displaced by industrialized meat production operations, in which animals endure terrible brutality and suffering. I wanted a different option and began working with Niman Ranch Pork Company, a network of independent ranchers who are committed to humanely raising animals outdoors and without the use of antibiotics. As Chipotle continues to grow, we are helping local family farmers and communities expand their operations, and we are working with modern farmers on adjusting their practices.

Do you see sustainable farming practices as a trend that is likely to grow over time?

Yes, as we continue to have this dialogue about eating food that is local, sustainable and seasonal, I’ve noticed that people are becoming more excited about the topic. Just 10 years ago, Niman Ranch pork was primarily available in high-end restaurants and specialty food markets. But I wanted this pork to be available to everybody, so that sustainably raised food was no longer just an elitist pursuit. I believe that sustainable farming and food is a movement that is likely to accelerate in the years ahead.

What can we do as consumers of food to help preserve a healthy environment?

For all of us, it is important to understand where our food comes from. Go to your local farmers markets. Know what is in season. And, understand where and how your meats are being raised. On the surface, sustainable food appears to cost more. But, if you look at the cost of industrialized/ processed food and then add in the cost of environmental degradation, displaced family farms, the exploitation of animals, the ramifications of the overuse of antibiotics, etc., you come to understand that there’s no real value in the industrialized system.

What is your favorite food or ingredient?

Over the years, my tastes have changed, as has what I find myself choosing to eat. I used to think of meat in the center of the plate. Today, I am a meat reducer. This means I eat less meat and make sure that the limited meat I do eat is of the highest quality. My plate is comprised of seasonal and local vegetables with meat as an accompaniment. While this is a healthier diet, the main reason I now eat this way is because it tastes better and I feel better.

What is your favorite place on Earth? Why is it important to you that we keep this planet healthy?

I have been fortunate to have visited many special places where people have respect for the land. Paul and Phyllis Willis from Niman Ranch live at a place they call the Dream Farm in Thornton, Iowa. They have been working for years to bring back the native prairie grasses and wetlands, which are not only beautiful, but important to the ecosystem and native species. Here you can see first-hand how responsible farming practices are so important to the earth.

— Text by Brad Parker, Cool Green Science Blog  

An interview with Steve Ells, founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill
The chef-turned-CEO talks to the Cool Green Science Blog about family farms, native prairie grasses and the true meaning of food with integrity.