Correction Appended: Feb. 12, 2010
On some level, the very idea of a McDonald's chef sounds preposterous. Burgers, fries, the McRib is this really the work of a chef? The food at McDonald's tastes partly of nostalgia and partly of marketing; the rest is surely salt.
And yet have you eaten at a McDonald's lately? In the past five years, the company has started to serve genuinely edible salads, unlike those dry iceberg-and-carrot things it used to offer. The Southwest Salad, which appeared in 2007, comes with a lime wedge and a credible corn salsa. Similarly, the new Angus Third Pounders a line of relatively expensive and meaty hamburgers that have 66% more beef than a Big Mac and less bread are just as tasty as the triple-the-price burgers at T.G.I. Friday's.
I'm not the only one who thinks so. After all the bad press in the early '00s the company has been blamed, with some justification, for the global rise in obesity McDonald's is enjoying a heady resurgence. Each day, it feeds some 26 million Americans, 2 million more than it did in 2006. In the past five years, the McDonald's Corp. share price has jumped from below $30 to above $60.
McDonald's has doubtless benefited from the weak economy its low-cost, seemingly healthy Snack Wraps (soft tortillas filled with chicken, lettuce and cheese) are perfectly positioned to feed a nation simultaneously worried about money and fat but the company's boom actually began in 2006, before the recession hit. A major reason was the improvement in its menu. A glowing Feb. 2 Goldman Sachs analyst's report on McDonald's is typical of Wall Street sentiments. The report says McDonald's is "stepping up investment when peers cannot" and cites the "strong new product pipeline" as a key factor.
It turns out there's a chef at the beginning of that pipeline a cook who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and who once ran the gracious kitchens at the Four Seasons Resort and Club outside Dallas. The Southwest Salad, the Angus burgers, the Snack Wrap they all emerged from the food laboratory of Daniel Coudreaut, 44, whose business card reads "Director of Culinary Innovation, Menu Management" but who likes to go by Chef Dan.
In a move that could be the New Coke of Coudreaut's career, his kitchen has created the Mac Snack Wrap, or Mac Wrap for short. The Mac Wrap is the first new version of the Big Mac the company has introduced since the iconic burger was launched in the 1960s. The Big Mac remains on the menu the company isn't stupid but executives were so fearful of spinning off a variant that internal negotiations and testing took a year. "Don't touch" was the attitude toward the Big Mac when he arrived, says Coudreaut. The fact that the top brass allowed him to remix it is both an expression of the company's faith in him and a signal that McDonald's once again feels strong enough to take risks.
The rollout for the Mac Wrap began quietly in December, but by last month, when it became the subject of a major ad campaign, the Mac Wrap was in all 14,000 U.S. McDonald's. For all that, it is a strange, simple little invention. To make a Mac Wrap, you take 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 and wrap the software in a tortilla instead of stacking it on a sesame-seed bun. McDonald's serves the Mac Wrap for only $1.50; it has just 330 calories, 210 fewer than the Big Mac. The wrap offers a familiar taste without the guilt, but that's not to say it's good for you. More than half its calories come from fat, and a single Mac Wrap has 690 mg of sodium almost as much as in an entire Quarter Pounder (730 mg). One Mac Wrap contains 46% of your recommended daily allowance of salt.
Public-health advocates will surely assail the company for creating the wrap, partly because you have to eat two to feel full (at which point you would have been better off ordering one Big Mac). But I wanted to know about the man behind it, this guy who thinks he can tinker with a paragon of Americana as durable as the Big Mac. Coudreaut might call himself Chef Dan, but isn't he just a p.r. stunt, a suit masquerading in chef's whites?