With the opening of Chipotle on Vine and Sunset this month and another being built on Sunset just west of Fairfax it seems like these fast food restaurants are popping up like mushrooms all over Los Angeles. But did you know this might actually be a good thing for Slow Food despite it being a fast food chain?

“We are changing the way people think about and eat fast food,” said Steve Ells, founder, chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle. “For too long, great food has really only been available in high end restaurants and specialty food markets, but Chipotle is making the same gourmet quality food available and affordable so everyone can eat better.”

I recently found myself sitting next to Ells, at a dinner party. He was in Los Angeles for five weeks filming a new NBC reality show, America's Next Great Restaurant with fellow judges Bobby Flay, Curtis Stone and Lorena Garcia. The premise of the show is exactly as the title suggests (not a lot is left to the imagination in the world of reality TV), a contest to find the next great restaurant chain. We will have to wait until the show airs in the fall to find out who wins what is being billed as the biggest prize in reality TV history, the opportunity to open in three cities across America.

Steve Ells, founder and co-CEO of Chipotle; Credit: Gina LeVay

Steve Ells, founder and co-CEO of Chipotle; Credit: Gina LeVay

What is instantly apparent about Ells is he's not your average CEO. Dressed in jeans and sneakers he is charming and intense as he looks at you through his designer frames and enthuses about what he calls “Food with Integrity.” Appearing on Oprah along side Michael Pollan, Oprah Winfrey told Ells “We need more of you.”

Chipotle feeds a lot of people, “750,000 a day” he tells me, but using meat and vegetables sourced from farms that treat animals, the environment and the people working on the farms with dignity and respect, using sustainable practices. It's also beyond economics, he says he has the highest food costs and the smallest profit margins of any fast food chain but he's willing and able to absorb this. “It's all in the details,” he explains, “We keep the menu of burritos, tacos and salads simple so we can make it using high quality fresh ingredients that are actually prepared and cooked on site rather than re-heated.”

In 1993, this Culinary Institute of America graduate had lofty plans to open a fine dining restaurant but Ells needed funds. He opened his first Chipotle restaurant as a way to raise the money. It was a huge hit, and another restaurant quickly followed. And another. McDonald's – yes, McDonald's – came calling and owned a controlling share of the company for six years until they parted ways in 2006. Since then Chipotle has grown exponentially. “We have three new restaurants opening each week” said Ells. This month Chipotle opened its one thousandth restaurant, one recently opened in London, and there are plans to expand globally. However, Ells is the first to admit his success has its limitations. He's not talking about the fact that he never opened that high-end restaurant but the difficulties sourcing the sheer volume of ingredients from farms that are in line with his humane and environmentally friendly standards.

“When we started serving pork from naturally raised pigs more than a decade ago, we did it because we thought it was a better way to raise animals and it produced better tasting food,” said Ells. “I visited a pig farm and it shocked me to see the conditions of the animals. That gave rise to our commitment to find better, more sustainable sources for all of the ingredients we use.”

In all, Chipotle expects to serve more than 75 million pounds of naturally raised meat in 2010, including all of its pork, more than 80% of its chicken, and 85% of its beef. All of its naturally raised meat comes from animals that are raised in a humane way, never given antibiotics or added hormones, and fed a pure vegetarian diet. Chipotle had been serving naturally raised chicken in all of its restaurants but can no longer get enough chicken to meet its growing demand. The company hopes to be back to 100% naturally raised chicken by the end of the year. As for the beef, Californian restaurants now serve 100% naturally raised barnacoa (spicy shredded beef) and steak and they are working towards that 100% goal for all the beef nationwide.

And which local farms is Chipotle supporting here in California? The red onions come from Peri and Sons Farms, the bell peppers and jalapenos from Cinagro Farms and Valpredo Farms, the oregano from Herbthyme and Kenter Canyon Farms, the avocados from Index Fresh, the lemons from Sunkist (Limoneira) and the romaine lettuce comes from Black Dog Farms and Cinagro Farms. If they run short of produce they could always send someone across the street to the Hollywood Farmers Market on a Sunday.

Chipotle Burrito Vs McDonalds Big Mac

Chipotle Burrito Vs McDonalds Big Mac

Chipotle recently came under fire in The Atlantic. When comparing the nutrition in a Chipotle burrito compared to a McDonald's Big Mac, the Big Mac appeared to be the healthier choice. What wasn't taken into consideration is the highly processed nature of the Big Mac compared to the fresh ingredients of the Chipotle burrito that are all cooked on site. Ells told me he is working on reducing the sodium content in the food at Chipotle. “We mustn't allow the well-marketed virtues of production to hide the rarely mentioned dangers of consumption.” Just because the pig grew up happy doesn't mean it's healthy to eat all of it or even a lot of it. As with all things, it's a question of balance and moderation. Even at Chipotle, with the fresh sustainable food, perhaps it's best to split that giant burrito and go easy on that side of chips, sour cream and guac. even if they were made from ingredients grown down on the farm rather than in a processing plant.

Lucy Lean can be found at Ladles and Jellyspoons.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.