McDonald’s may be known, variously, for its cheery Big Mac and Ronald McDonald icons or its contributions to obesity in America, but its success lies in its ability to adapt to and control the massive forces above and below it in the global food market.

For Coudreaut, as for all great chefs, nothing is more important than the ingredients. But because of where he works, his every change of recipe affects thousands of careers and lifestyles, an $80-billion-a-year produce industry, and huge swaths of the agricultural map. His addition of apple slices (in salads and as an alternative to fries in Happy Meals) made McDonald’s the world’s largest buyer and seller of the fruit in 2005—it moved more than 55 million pounds. In 2006, when he introduced the Premium Asian Salad with Chicken, which includes a bag of Blue Diamond slivered almonds to top the greens, edamame, and mandarins, the nut company’s brand recognition shot up 12 percent. Thanks to Coudreaut, McDonald’s is also among the top five buyers and sellers of grape tomatoes, chicken, and lettuces (Southwest Salads use 14 different greens, which vary seasonally).

That massive scale limits creativity. So any thought of adding shrimp or fresh strawberries to salads, for example, or expanding regional McDonald’s items (like the lobster served in Maine or the biscuits and gravy down South) is a nonstarter, because national forays into such markets could drown them. “Avocado would be a natural for Dan,” says CIA president Tim Ryan. “But then how would the rest of the world make guacamole?”

Coudreaut’s innovations have certainly restored some luster to the Golden Arches. When he was hired in 2004, McDonald’s was reeling: A year earlier it had reported a $344 million quarterly loss (the first in its history), its image had been battered by Super Size Me, and Wendy’s was scoring P.R. triumphs by going green. Since Coudreaut was hired, the chain’s daily customer tally has gone up by 2 million and its stock has leapt from $20 to around $65 a share (as of early October).

It’s hard to judge a chef by the numbers, but Coudreaut can point to yearly sales of more than 350 million salads. Not exactly “99 Billion Served” yet, but enough to make Ryan, mentor to Anthony Bourdain and Rocco DiSpirito, call Coudreaut “the most impactful chef on the planet.” And, Ryan adds, “Dan’s real impact on McDonald’s—not to mention the way America eats—is yet to be felt.”

Truth is, McDonald’s menu remains the immovable object to Coudreaut’s irresistible force. His Hot ‘n’ Spicy McChicken sandwich, for example, rolled out nationally with massive ad support, died. Many more ideas have never made it out of his test-recipe vault. “Pork would be a great alternative, just to cite an obvious example,” Coudreaut says. “The sad fact is if it doesn’t have the word bacon, ham, or sausage attached, pork doesn’t sell.”