The Culinary Institute of America

Steve Ells, CIA culinary arts alumni, is founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Spotlight On: Steve Ells ’90Associate Degree in Culinary Arts

Founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill
Class of 1990
"My time at The Culinary Institute of America provided a great foundation and taught me many lessons that are still valuable today."

Founder and CEO of Chipotle Mexican Grill and ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, CIA alumnus Steve Ells has unlocked the secret to a successful and sustainable business model with his “Food with Integrity” initiative. “We decided long ago that we didn’t want our success to be tied to the exploitation of animals, farmers, or the environment, but the engagement of our customers,” he says. From humanely raised beef to hormone-free sour cream, Steve incorporates high-quality ingredients into his menu because, as he says, “they ultimately result in better-tasting food.” The transformation to a more ethical menu occurred gradually as business grew. The effect is not only more flavorful food, but greater customer loyalty and increased sales.

In 1990, Steve received his degree from the CIA. While he served as sous chef under Jeremiah Tower at Stars restaurant in San Francisco, he was inspired by eating at the local taquerias. Steve returned home to Denver in hopes of opening a similarly themed establishment that would help fund his ultimate dream of owning a “real” restaurant. So, armed with a loan from his father, he launched his very first burrito restaurant.

Now, a booming success with 1,681 Chipotle sites, 17 outside the U.S., and seven Shophouse locations, Ells sees an opportunity to open doors for CIA students by creating a scholarship for those who share his philosophy for sustainability. The Chipotle Mexican Grill Annual Scholarship will award $2,500 to an emerging culinary professional demonstrating support for sustainable agricultural practices consistent with Chipotle’s philosophy.

“My time at The Culinary Institute of America provided a great foundation and taught me many lessons that are still valuable today,” Steve explains. “In many ways I was lucky, not everyone has the resources or support they need to help realize their dreams.” In addition to running his growing culinary empire Steve sits on the board of directors of the Land Institute, a non-profit research, education, and policy organization.

In 2010, James Beard Foundation Rising Chef award winner Nate Appleman ’99, who garnered critical acclaim as executive chef at A16 and SPQR in San Francisco, was hired as corporate chef of Chipotle Mexican Grill and  ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen.

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