Time magazine recently ran a somewhat surprising article: McDonald's Chef: The Most Influential Cook in America? by John Cloud. The chef, Daniel Coudreaut, grew up in Ossining, N.Y., went to business school, trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and has worked in new product development at McDonalds since 2004.
Coudreaut's test kitchen at McD's headquarters, according to the article, is beautiful and modern and very unlike any stereotype of McDonald's. He and his staff experiment with new products only for American sales -- McDonald's adapts its products for each major marketing area. The emphasis is on keeping the successful products and building on them: "you don't mess with the fries."
The ivory tower nature of Coudreaut's outfit -- described at length -- upholds the expectation that "every great manufacturing company runs a crazy R&D department, a place where mad scientists get to fiddle with toys and produce one or two breakthroughs a year."
From this test kitchen have come a number of recently developed McDonald's products. The latest is Mac Snack Wrap -- a tortilla filled with "about half the interior of a Big Mac — a single beef patty, three quick squeezes of special sauce, less lettuce, less cheese, fewer pickles, fewer onions." It costs $1.50 and 330 calories. Coudreaut has lots of leeway to play with exotic or specialized ingredients like endive, dried cherries, wine sauces, and celery root, but his products must appeal to typical McDonald's customers. Further, chosen ingredients must be available in unimaginable quantities, and their preparation must be "so simple that a high school dropout can make it." So he has a challenging job despite his apparent freedoms.
Recently, I read the autobiography of Jacques Pepin, the French-trained chef and early TV food personality. (See "The Apprentice" for my thoughts on it.) Coudreaut provides a striking parallel: Pepin, along with another then-famous chef, Pierre Franey, worked for a decade at Howard Johnson's, which was at the time, the 1960s, the largest American fast-food chain. Pepin described his efforts to create more palatable dishes for the mass market. He had to make sure they could be scaled up in quantity and kept consistent in quantity. They had to be distributed and sold at hundreds of restaurants. He also worked in the hope of encouraging Americans to slightly (at least) expand the range of their tastes. If Coudreaut ever writes an autobiography I wonder what comparable things he will say about his leadership of McDonald's test kitchens.
Thanks to Evelyn who told me to read the Time article.