A few hours after the ravioli tasting, still wearing his chef’s whites, Coudreaut is pacing outside a McDonald’s franchise near the company headquarters, where we’re meeting to mystery-shop his creations.

“You know, I go back to the CIA,” Coudreaut says, “and my friends’ first take is always ‘What are you doing at McDonald’s?!’

As he approaches the counter, he gets the same reaction from the high-schooler taking our order. “You’re the guy on that TV special about us!” the cashier says. “I can’t believe you’re actually in a McDonald’s!” Coudreaut smiles, and we order Asian and Southwest Chicken Salads, a Chicken Snack Wrap, a yogurt parfait Coudreaut says isn’t his creation but he recommends highly, and a Big Mac.

“I got the same ‘All that training? McDonald’s?!’ from my wife, Kim,” he recalls, as we sit down. “But it was a no-brainer. I had no illusions about a chef’s life—the health issues, the hours, the divorce rates. I wanted to be there for my family. I wanted a garden. I’m making eggplant parm tonight—with the first of the season from my garden. And I’m a coach for my daughter’s soccer team.”

“But it was also for the learner in me,” Coudreaut adds. “Whatever makes you uncomfortable, professionally, is what you should be doing.” He takes a plastic knife to our Big Mac. “Bet you never saw one cut in half,” he says. It looks smaller that way, which underscores the great mystery of the Big Mac: It looks huge in the wrapper, smaller in your hand, then seems even smaller in your mouth. “It’s the lettuce, actually,” he says, lifting the bun to reveal an airy iceberg chiffonade. “Taste isn’t just the five flavors and the smells. Volume is part of the sensation.”

We sample Coudreaut’s Southwest Salad. I try to identify the salty-sweet base of the chicken glaze. Does it have mango? I ask.

“It’s orange,” he says. “You’re picking up other flavors if you’re getting savory.” With the tip of his knife, he points out the 14 greens, the roasted corn, the black beans, the peppers, etc. Umami. It’s delicious. Close your eyes, pretend you’re not eating out of plastic, I tell him, and you’d have no idea you were in a McDonald’s.

There’s been a semi-processed feel to his responses—he does lots of sales presentations and stock-analyst calls and has learned the mien of a talking head—but now the practiced twinkle becomes an ear-to-ear grin. “No idea you’re in a McDonald’s?” Coudreaut says, without apparent irony. “I’m loving it!”