In a compact fourth-floor professional kitchen at McDonald’s sprawling corporate campus known as Hamburger University, in Oak Brook, Illinois, Chef Dan Coudreaut sweats a handful of shallots in olive oil with fresh thyme and tarragon, then adds a splash of cream to reduce for his ravioli sauce. To showcase the low cost, ease, and semi-prefab nature of this dishcall it Ravioli à la RonaldCoudreaut is pressing wonton skins, not pasta dough, and brushing them gently with an egg wash made with water rather than milk, and his filling (fennel, stove-top-smoked chicken and bacon) and garnishes (pesto, tomatoes he’s oven-roasted for an hour at 250) . . . well, they showcase something of their own.
Coudreaut has lifted the core ingredients of this ravioli from his $4.99 Southwest Chicken Salad and his $1.49 Chicken Snack Wrap, two of the 10 additions Chef Dan has made to the big McMenuout of 6,000-plus dishes he’s tested in his four years as McDonald’s director of culinary innovation. “What would you expect to pay for this?” the boyish looking 43-year-old asks, his bright, friendly eyes flashing as he hands me a plate of ravioli.
It’s one of those perfect $18 haute American dishes. The lightness of wonton skins, the bold simplicity of the stuffing, the high-flavor notes of concentrated tomato and pesto, and the slight indulgence of a light cream sauce all alert the taste buds to that recently anointed fifth taste, umamiJapanese for “savory” or “delicious.” As I chew, Coudreaut eagerly digs his hand into a big bowl of . . . fries? Nope, it’s jicama dressed with lime juice, cayenne, and salt and cut to look exactly like McDonald’s friesa sly epicurean sight gag.
About what you’d expect from someone who graduated first in his 1995 Culinary Institute of America (CIA) class and was chosen for the Nation’s Restaurant News “Top 50 Culinarians” list in 2003. But Coudreaut isn’t the French-born toque his name would suggesthe’s a former child actor (on All My Children) who developed an interest in cooking when he had to make beef stew to earn a merit badge as a Cub Scout in Ossining, New York. When he’s not in his chef’s whites, the back-yard-loving, Dave Matthews-listening, soccer-coaching suburban father of two seems more like a Michelin-tire guy than a Michelin Guide guyand perhaps that’s fitting: This isn’t the Four Seasons (where he rose to chef de cuisine in two years), and this dish isn’t for restaurant critics. It’s for McDonald’s leadership council of owner-operators, meeting at the corporate HQ in two weeks, at the end of September.
Coudreaut won’t just be catering a business luncheon. As he has for four years, he will be selling the idea that fast food with fresh, healthy ingredientswhether that means edamame or just a better cut of beef for the burgercan be attractive to 27 million daily customers addicted to trans fats and empty calories. The pitch is made to his two immediate links in Mickey D’s vast supply chain: those franchise owners and the fellow cooks he shares this test kitchen with every dayexecutive chefs from Tyson (the supplier of most of his chicken), Cargill (beef, oil, eggs, salt), Sargento (cheese), Golden State Foods (sauces), and others. It’s a strikingly small operation: Using a six-burner Wolf stove, a compact oven, and a salamander broiler, Coudreaut brings menu ideas to the plate. Those that gain traction with the franchisees and corporate suits are translated into gold-standard exemplars and taken around the corner to Coudreaut’s fast-food kitchenreplete with griddle, grill, and deep fryerwhere he tests the feasibility of replicating dishes in your friendly neighborhood Mickey D’s.