What do the Culinary Institute of American and the fast Mexican food chain Chipotle have in common? The first produced the man who produced the second.
Steve Ells started Chipotle in 1993 after attending the renowned US cooking school and completing a subsequent stint as a line cook in San Francisco, an area infamous for burritos especially in the Mission district and you know what? The more I learn about both Steve and his ethos, the more I like. For instance, did you know that they only have 5 items on the menu because Ells believes that ‘it’s important to keep the menu focused, because if you do just a few things, you can ensure that you do them better than anybody else.’
I. Love. That.
Seriously, in a world where growth often come at a cost, be it financial or ethical, isn’t this kind of a great thing to believe? That it’s better to be known for being the best at one or two, or in Steve’s case five things, rather than being just ok at thirty?
Or how about this for a fact with which to dazzle your peers – did you know that there are no freezers, microwaves or tin openers in any Chipotle kitchen? So wait, if you can’t freeze it, reheat it or get it from a can, where does it come from? It’s fresh! Woo hoo!
Now I’m not going to go all out and suggest that a burrito a day is the way forward (although my inner fatty is just taking a moment now to imagine how freaking fabulous that would be) because burritos are large. I mean seriously big. Often the size of your arm, sometimes the size of a 6 month old baby, with the potential to deliver 1000+ calories per portion it’s not like they’re pushing spinach or blueberries off their superfood podia BUT let’s remember that just as there are bad calories, there are also good and anything that has beans, onions, peppers, avocado, lean meat and brown rice in it can’t be all bad.
Plus, and don’t even get me started on personal accountability although it looks like it might be too late for that, aren’t we all big enough and ugly enough to take on board the facts and make a decision for ourselves? Yes, if you eat a burrito a day you will end up being very large, very uncomfortable and not someone to stand upwind of but that would be your choice. YOUR CHOICE. Y’know how Chris Rock said that guns don’t kill people, bullets do? That’s kind of how I feel about food. Everything in moderation people. Coca Cola and Krispy Kreme won’t kill you but ingesting excessive amounts of their most calorific, fate and sugar laden products might. What you put into your body is your choice and yes, it might be bad for you but it didn’t force its way in like Watson’s nightmare cake scene from the ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’ now did it?
Chipotle’s open plan kitchens – and tableside preparation for those in wheelchairs – means you get to see exactly what’s being put in your body right in front of you. You choose, you decide, you enjoy. So how, how, HOW has it taken me nearly 2 years of being back in London and within an avocado stone’s throw of a Chipotle branch for me to actually step inside? Choice. There’s just been too much choice and with a lot of that choice being temporarily market or pop-up based, a chain that seems as though it will always be around sometimes get pushed to the bottom of the pecking order no matter how delicious it is.
Well this warm, lazy evening seemed the perfect time to break that way of thinking and instead, be one of the 750’000 people who are served at Chipotle every single day.
With the front of the Islington branch opening out onto sun dappled pavement and satisfied looking diners getting down with their dinner inside, everything about the place was welcoming, clean and refreshingly understated.
This was a theme carried on inside as smiling, happy staff talked you through the construction of something that ended up being, no word of a lie, almost bigger than my friend’s adorable teacup chihuahua.
And here she is, complete with fork for scale. Before you ask, I don’t know why my burrito is female, I really don’t. Probably for the same reason that I can’t tell you why I consider eggs to be male, pancakes to be female and sweet potato fries to be confused as hell.
What we have here ladies and gentlemen is a carnitas burrito. Carnitas is pork that has been simmered in oil or lard until tender and falling apart. Yes I said lard – remember my earlier rant people, YOUR CHOICE! I chose to put these little morsels of gorgeousness into my tummy, same as I’ll choose not to test run my new bikini 20 minutes after wiping the plate clean. It’s all about being sensible here people.
The carnitas sit on top of a bed of fragrant coriander-lime rice, black beans (though you have the option of bacon free and very veggie friendly pinto instead), guacamole, cheese, sour cream and salsa with all of these ingredients being added or omitted according to your taste.
Forsaking the al fresco dining option, we trotted home as fast as we could to enjoy these bad boys with an ice-cold, lime wedged Corona and a lot of noises that frankly, if you had nothing but a glass pressed up against the wall, would make you think something even fresher than these burritos was going on.
So after nearly 1000 words about a man named Steve, my views on bullets and an explanation of the rich and fatty loveliness that answers to the name of carnitas, what did I actually think? I thought it was pretty damn good. The last couple of burritos I’ve indulged in on this side of the pond have been from Wholefoods, that behemoth of food and they’ve been good; spicy and crunchy and creamy and moreish.
Chipotle was more generous with their meat which was drippingly good and this is a big tick in the box because there’s nothing worse than being fobbed off by handfuls of iceberg when what you really want is something more carniverous.
Their flavours were just as good as Wholefoods but in a different way – less heat and more smokiness which I liked. Spice is good when it’s handled sensitively otherwise you run the risk of totally annihilating every other ingredient. This was a softer flavour, one that idled on your tongue as everything smooshed together in that entirely satisfying way that food sometimes should. It’s not that you want your dinner to be pureed into something suitable for those at either end of the age spectrum, it’s more that you get a bit of every flavour and texture in each bit and there’s nothing jarring in amongst it, y’know? It all works together in harmony.
Would I go back? Absolutely. Would I recommend Chipotle to friends? For sure. It’s pretty rare to find something labelled as ‘fast food’ that a) I’d want to eat and b) I’d be happy to eat. Steve Ells, with my gorgeously sticky, savoury, burrito remnant laden hands, I salute you.