Industry News | February 22, 2011

The Surprise in Chipotle’s Test Kitchen

Nate Appleman was working at A16 in San Francisco when, one day in early September, a man named Phil Petrilli decided to introduce himself to the chef.

Appleman was a Rising Star Chef from the James Beard Foundation and a Food & Wine Best New Chef. Petrilli was a regional director for Chipotle who admired Appleman’s work.

But Petrilli couldn’t have prepared himself for what the chef would say when he told him he was a fan.

“I was like, ‘This might sound weird coming from me, but I’m actually pretty excited to meet you because I love Chipotle,’” Appleman says.

He went on to explain that he appreciated the quality of the food at the chain, so Petrilli told him about Chipotle’s three test kitchens, which cook everything from scratch.

Appleman moved to New York City shortly afterward to work at Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria, which opened in March. But he hadn’t forgotten about the Chipotle test kitchens.

“Initially, I thought it was a bad idea,” he says. “My perception of fast food restaurants is that consistency is key. Whether it’s consistently good or consistently bad, you know what to expect when you walk in the door. … I questioned whether it would even work [to make everything from scratch].”

Since one of Chipotle’s test kitchens is located in New York, Appleman met with Steve Ells, founder and co-CEO of Chipotle, to check it out for himself.

“I walked away from seeing the restaurant, and all I could do was just think about it,” Appleman says. “So a month or so after coming to it, I reached out to Phil and just said, ‘I’m just testing the waters here, but do you think there would ever be room for someone like me within your company?’”

By November, Appleman had left Pulino’s and was in talks with Chipotle. For the past couple of months, he’s been working 11-hour shifts five or six days a week in the brand’s Chelsea test kitchen.

A Match Made in Quick-Serve Heaven

The collaboration is unusual for a fast-casual concept, to say the least.

“A lot of what we’ve seen with star chefs or notable chefs has just been on the marketing or endorsement side of things,” says Kathy Hayden, a foodservice analyst for Mintel Menu Insights. “But anything that makes quick-serve better is a welcome change, and if a new, enthusiastic chef in the kitchen that we all know accomplishes that, then why not?”

One philosophy Appleman hopes to bring to Chipotle is his belief in using the whole animal.

“Chicken is our No. 1 seller [at Chipotle], and we only use the leg and the thigh right now,” Appleman says. “That leaves a lot of breast left over, and with the quality we’re using at the volume we’re using, you can’t find enough people willing to pay the price we would have to charge for the breast.”

Although Appleman is still more concerned with learning his way around the Chipotle kitchen than with introducing new innovations, one possibility that has crossed his mind is chicken chorizo.

“With Chipotle’s emphasis on sustainability and Nate’s whole ingredient approach, it does seem like a good match,” Hayden says.

Changing America, One Chipotle at a Time

While Appleman’s ideas have the potential to affect Chipotle stores across the country, don’t expect the chain’s basic, pared-down menu to change much as a result.

“Certainly he is coming on to work on menu innovation,” Ells says, “but the way we approach menu innovation is different than most quick serves. Our menu innovation for the past 18 years primarily has been focused on improving the quality of our raw ingredients, continuing to refine our preparation and cooking methods, and honing our skills at serving customers individually in an interactive format. … Nate brings some unique skills to this, some skills that will complement our already-intense efforts around making all of these things better.”

Accordingly, many of the changes Appleman suggests likely won’t relate to food at all.

“It could be about running the restaurant, too,” he says. “There are days where I’ll do dishes for hours to see how that process might be improved.”

As Appleman learns how Chipotles are run and develops suggestions for how to improve that process, he’ll work with Ells to discuss the possibility of rolling out changes in other locations.

“We'll be evaluating all of his work on an ongoing basis,” Ells says. “Our meetings are at the restaurant, cooking together in the kitchen.”

But Appleman’s ambitions for the collaboration aren’t limited to Chipotle stores.

“Honestly, I hope to make the country a better place,” he says. “It sounds lofty and somewhat silly to say that, but I don’t necessarily think so. … If you eat better quality meat, it affects everybody.”

By Robin Van Tan