If Coudreaut seems unfazed, perhaps it’s because he’s made compromises before, first by moving from the position of executive chef at a leading Dallas fish house to that of garde-manger, overseeing prepared foods for all the Dallas Four Seasons’ eateries—a job that’s looked down on by most chef-artistes, who associate it with humdrum prep and safety. After that, Coudreaut devoted four years to another unglamorous aspect of the chef trade, R&D, at Bonanza/Ponderosa. He expanded the buffet to look more like the dinner table at a fancy southern boardinghouse than a salad bar, and found a way to offer higher-grade center-cut steaks without increasing prices.

At McDonald’s, Coudreaut calls on these experiences as much as he does his CIA training. “It’s a balance,” he says. “It’s about the realities of which battles you can win, which you can’t, and more often, where the compromise lies.” His signature dish, the Southwest Salad, for example, originally had toasted pumpkin seeds on top for texture. “Pumpkin didn’t resonate, so now it has fried taco strips. Empty calories, but not unhealthy and certainly not processed. That’s the great P.R. battle with McDonald’s: Even our regular guests are convinced they’re not eating real food,” he says.

“I don’t know how many of Dan’s sentences begin ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could . . . ’” says Stephen Giunta, master chef at Cargill and Coudreaut’s frequent companion in the test kitchen. “Between those thousands of ideas—everything from Thai curry to quesadillas—Dan has the thousand realities of getting it not only on the plate but in the mouth.”

Coudreaut got his first inkling of those realities in his Iron Chef-like audition for the job in 2004. He was given a few hours in the test kitchen and was charged with creating his vision of a Golden Arches breakfast. Advised that more than 65 percent of orders are at the drive-through, Coudreaut whipped up three types of egg-filled calzones, four-berry smoothies, and his take on PowerBars: dried fruits, yogurt, apple butter, and leavening served warm in cupcake wrappers.

“It was creative, sure, but the other chef was actually more creative,” says Deb McDaniel, senior director of food innovation and Coudreaut’s boss. “Chef Dan’s food just had a healthy halo. Simply prepared with respect for ingredients. His real genius is for leveraging the creativeness of a massive group effort.”

With his spiked hair and camera-ready good looks, Coudreaut could serve, in a pinch, as Bobby Flay’s stunt double—though Daniel Boulud is the celebrity chef he calls an idol. While he twice tried his hand at professional acting (he struggled as an Off Broadway thespian after graduating with a major in business from a community college), Chef Dan has no interest in decamping for the Food Channel. Top chefs can now make a name in fast food: CIA grads Steve Ells, who founded Chipotle Mexican Grill, and Stan Frankenthaler, head of culinary development at Dunkin’ Donuts, for example. Coudreaut is at the fore of the trend not only because he’s at the biggest restaurant chain of them all but also because he never loses sight of what made that chain big: “McDonald’s is burgers and fries,” he says. Coudreaut’s reasonably sure he knows the composition of the Big Mac’s Special Sauce, molecule for molecule, but given the choice he wouldn’t alter an atom.