1-on-1 Interview With The Most Powerful Chef in The World

The day before the Olympic started, the senior management team of McDonalds flew into Vancouver to host a global press event at the Games Main Press Center. McDonalds, as it is well known, has been a worldwide Olympic partner for over 40 years.

I was totally excited when McDonalds wrote to me a week before the Vancouver 2010 games asking if chowtimes would like to attend the global press event. I immediately said yes. I would not give up that golden chance to get into the highly secured Main Press Center and get close to the heartbeat of the games.

A few emails to and fro with several people within McDonalds follows after. They were asking about chowtimes and stuff like our traffic profile. After a while they asked … would you like to speak to Chef Dan Coudreaut? Chef Dan, you see, is the Director of Culinary Innovations. The man behind the food … and in many respect, considered as the most powerful chef on this planet.

Whoa! Play-acting as a journalist among hoards of journalists is one thing but being offered a 1-on-1 interview with The Man is yet another. As much as I did not know what to do, I knew I could not pass off this once in a lifetime chance. I replied “yes” first and then try to figure out something along the way.

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Truth be told … when I mentioned on Twitter and chowtimes of the 1-on-1 interview, there was one particular reader who wrote an email (albeit politely) that she will no longer support chowtimes because of my acceptance for the interview. She symbolically asked me to remove her name from our email distribution. That sort of set me thinking how much emotions that some people shows at the sheer mention of McDonalds name.

What is it that evokes such responses? Is it that McDonalds pushes unhealthy food? Is it that McDonalds epitomizes the successful corporate world? Why does it seems more acceptable to eat dim sum (as a random example) than to have a Big Mac?

I am not going to push for an answer. You know and I know that everyone can argue until the cows come home and we will never be in any agreement. I went to the McDonalds event with an open mind and no prejudice with the intention to hear the low down from the #1 chef of the #1 restaurant in the world.

I have a feeling this post might invite reactions and I welcome all views.

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It was a mad scramble getting the press credential. The media event was to be at 9AM and by 8PM the previous day, I had not received any instructions on what to do and where to go. I shot off an urgent email to McDonalds at night and that set a few wheels in motion. I think someone dropped the ball on chowtimes. I only got the go ahead at about 5AM — 4 hours before the event!

I was armed already with the questions I wanted to ask Chef Dan. Many of the questions were from chowtimes readers.

It was a wet day when I took the Skytrain to the Convention Center. I was given a couple of run arounds before I got to the right section to collect the press credential from. The volunteers were new on the job and had a hard time locating all the passes that were prepared upfront. It took 20 minutes to locate my pass — got me worried that they might not have my records and miss out on the event.

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Almost everyone in the broadcasting world you can think of is there. They were wearing shirts with logo of Reuters, NBC, etc! The photographers who were seated near me were all carrying big cameras … not one camera but two. And they seem to know each other. There I was a small time blogger — sigh, no one really bothered to talk to me other than saying “how is it going?”.

I don’t dress like they do and certainly don’t carry the right type of equipment. Next time, I am going to print a T-shirt with the chowtimes.com logo so that I can feel more like part of the gang.

LOL!

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While waiting for the event to start, we were served some food. It was early and serving full sized sandwiches was not quite right, one thing that I like was the Mini Mac. The bite sized Mini Mac tastes exactly like the Big Mac. It is amazing that they managed to make it so small — it was just like the size of a 25 cents coin.

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I see that no one really touched the fries. It is because it it’s still too early for fries. But I took it because I wanted to sample their new sauces.

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The new sauces were not to my taste. Maybe it is the name that they gave it — zesty mango, sichuan and thai. I was particularly interested in the Sichuan one. It was more peanuty than anything. It wasn’t spicy in anyway that can be associated with the word Sichuan. But I know … these sauces were not created for Asians but for the US market.

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The press event was somewhat short. There were speeches from McDonalds management, the IOC and VANOC. The speeches were quickly followed by some fun and games.

The McDonalds Champion Kids program flew in children selected from Canada and all over the world with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the Vancouver 2010 games first-hand. These 6-14 year old also have a chance to serve as youth correspondence to share their experience with their hometown news outlets.

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After the event, I was introduced to Chef Dan. He comes across to me as a down to earth kind of person. Very approachable.

As we settled down, I was shifty and nervous. I was nervous because of what I was about to say to kick off the 1-on-1. I just said three words … “Junk food. Why?”

On hindsight, I wished I had not started with that manner. At that time, I was thinking that I need to get this nagging question out of the way. I felt at that time that I need to hear from McDonalds what their response is to the negative feedback to their food.

It was a bit of a pause before Chef Dan responded. I think he wasn’t expecting this from me. It was an awkward way to start, and confrontational. I further elaborated by asking him why do so many people perceive McDonalds food as junk food? Why does McDonalds continue to draw criticism about their menu and business practices?

Chef Dan’s reply was pretty much summed up as “I really don’t know all the answer”. He downright said that he does not personally encourage everyone to eat at McDonalds everyday. He expects the same thing of his two young children to have a balanced diet and that McDonalds as a place in their lives as a fun food place once in a while.

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He defended the food in McDonalds and was telling me that for those people who said that McDonalds food is unhealthy, he would like them to go into a McDonalds today. He said that McDonalds today is very much different from the McDonalds of 10 years ago. There are more healthy choices on the menu — something that Chef Dan said that he works hard on at the same time without sacrificing the fun-ness in the food.

For instance, the parfait above is a new addition to the food served in McDonalds restaurant. During the event, they had also introduced the fruit smoothies. I did not have a picture of the smoothies.

Chef Dan also said that the food made in McDonalds are “real food”. They use real eggs for their Egg McMuffin which they try to put across in commercials where they McD crews juggle the eggs. He was lamenting that despite all these effort, there are some people who still does not believe that McDonalds today uses real beef, real yogurt, real eggs and that their fries are now 100% trans fat free. Chef Dan also pointed that out that some of the most important members of his team in Chicago are the dietitians and nutritionists. He also hopes that people will just give McDonalds a chance and go into his restaurants and see the difference if they had never been there for years.

So where does Chef Dan see the McDonalds menu heading in the next 5-10 years? Chef Dan does not mention anything specific. I think he does not want to mention it for commercial reason. He did say that it takes 3 years to develop a single new product. Chef Dan has a kitchen next to his office and he is hands on. With his team, they come up with dozens of new ideas but only a small handful makes it at the end.

Chef Dan did say that he likes to see McDonalds offer more on the beverage front. That reminded me of the many free coffee campaigns that was aimed squarely at Starbucks. Smoothies, real fruit smoothies, is another thing that the company hopes will come along big shortly.

When I asked what new food trends in the gourmet foodie market are they hoping to implement, I was told that McDonalds will very likely not into gourmet techniques like sous-vide. Instead, they do actively pursue the use of trendy ingredients like lemongrass, chipotle and peri-peri peppers. Because of the vastness of McDonalds in having 140,000 restaurants around the world, they cannot be too niche.

I also conveyed what a chowtimes reader wanted to say to Chef Dan … that she “likes to see McDonalds keep moving towards healthier food and continue to stop pushing supersize fries; and it doesn’t have to be soy burgers.” Chef Dan said that they continually listen to what the customer wants and they do try to promote healthier options like having wholegrain buns.

But there is one thing Chef Dan wanted to make sure that we know … that despite all the effort to provide healthier option, he does not want the world to think that McDonalds will be giving up on burgers and fries.

I was thinking how influential a person at his position is. In many respect, he is the most powerful chef in the world from the standpoint that more people eat McDonalds food than anyone. A bit of an exaggeration on my part here … say, if Chef Dan decides that there should be ten additional sesame seeds on each bun, it would translate into serious dollars in the sesame supply industry!

I read somewhere that at one point, Chef Dan tossed the idea of adding shrimp to salads. But bringing in shrimp daily to every McDonalds restaurant in the US, it would severely deplete the country’s shrimp supply. Also consider the apple. When the fruit and walnut salad debuted in May 2005, McDonalds immediately became the No. 1 restaurant seller of fresh apples, using nearly 55 million pounds of apples that year, according to the US Apple Association. There you go!

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I enjoyed the interview with Chef Dan. He was pleasant and open. Knowing how graciously he reacted to my initial salvo, I felt kind of bad to tell the truth. As a person, he certainly did not deserve that from me. He did spend a lot of time with me. It was like 30 minutes.

Please do not hate me for speaking to Chef Dan of McDonalds. LOL!

And also please do not hate me for saying that I enjoy having a Big Mac every now and then.

Thoughts?

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  1. When you mentioned how influential Chef Dan is, I almost couldn’t grasp it. The statistic with the apples really opened my eyes though. I guess it’s a good thing to pay attention to him, if you play the stock market.

    You were so gutsy to start off the conversation with that question. How did you feel about it afterwards? Would you have said something differently if you could do it over again? I’d probably ask him something along the lines of, “How did you get that job?” lol

    I rarely eat McDonalds nowadays. It’s either the nuggets or the big mac when I go. Here’s a good tip from my mom: when you want hot and fresh fries, ask for fries with no salt. The cashier might ask you why, just say you can’t eat a lot of salt. Then you just have to wait an extra 5 mins and then, you get hot fries!

    Great job, as always, Ben!

    1. Hi Christine:
      The truth is I felt bad starting it off with such a confrontational manner especially when it was right after exchanging pleasantries with him. He was such a down to earth person and honest with his replies that I felt bad. He really struggled when he finally said “I don’t know” why people still thinks so badly of McDonalds. There are a lot of other things we talked about too which I did not write — the interview was very long and he spent good time with me. He also talked about McDonalds stand on the “Supersize Me” film and why the removal of the Supersize option weeks after the release of the film had nothing to do with it. I did ask him about how he got his job and his thoughts about it. And yes, given a chance to do it over again, I would not have started off with “junk food”.
      Ben

  2. I don’t hate Chef Dan and I do like McDonalds for coffee and burgers and breakfast anytime (although in moderation as whenever you eat something everyday that is same you get bored of it). Fruit and yogurt parfait has been in U.S. for a long time; those glasses make it look so fancy though! So are the mini macs.

    Very funny on the cameras :). I just saw a couple walking at the Arboretum in my area and they both had pro level Canon DSLRs with telephoto lenses and a large backpack for each of them! Lots of people brought out their cameras as it just finished raining during the morning…

  3. Ben says:
    What is it that evokes such responses? Is it that McDonalds pushes unhealthy food? Is it that McDonalds epitomizes the successful corporate world? Why does it seems more acceptable to eat dim sum (as a random example) than to have a Big Mac?

    I say:
    I think it’s because Dim Sum places or other places are just private owned restaurants not giant corporations. People think corporations dictate a lot of things and they don’t like that. I think it’s a little bit overreacting on their part. Because this is food corporation not oil company or tax man, you can always have a choice not to buy their products. Their business will fail if customers turn their back on them. But you can’t stop buying gasoline even when there’s price gouging and you have no say about no tax increases.

    I personally don’t like McDonald burgers if I want a burger. I find their burgers are so small. The quarter pound or big Mac is somewhat as small as a cheese burger even though it costs more. Forget it. Parfait can’t be new, it has been on the menu forever, in the States. I thought it was on the menu in Canada too and I had ordered one here. I do like the McMuffins but I rarely go out for breakfast. I won’t make it to my car if I don’t eat breakfast before I leave the house. Too hungry.

  4. Interesting post and boy, food bloggers represented at the press conference! Way to go, Ben!!

    The way you explained McDonald’s influence in the market at the end of post is intriguing. It’s like how people use the Big Mac Index to explain the exchange rate: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Mac_Index. People may continue to perceive McD’s as a junk food restaurant but no one can deny how much money it gives back to local food producers, i.e. the local economy.

  5. ben:

    it would be great to read Part-2 of the interview, with rest of the details.

  6. I recently read another interview with Chef Dan and they completley avoided the controversy surrounding the McDonald’s empire. I don’t think anyone should vilify Chef Dan but one has to wonder why a highly trained chef works for this massive chain that plays such a large role in the health and obesity epidemic in the United States. Reading the first article, I came out unhappy with Chef Dan because I felt like the elephant in the room was avoided. Thank you for addressing the issue and allowing us to see a different side to Mickey D’s. It seems that Chef Dan is an honest and skilled chef and his posistion of power makes him fascinating, but thankfully not evil 🙂

  7. Good job Ben, though starting off with such an intense question was a bit much. Maybe a note to him just to convey how you feel would balance things.

    And the important thing to remember is that you started this blog to SHARE your enjoyment of the restaurants you tried. No one should be dictating what you should write if you are following journalistic guides. The question is: is it a good story? YES! A total opportunity!

    There is a reason it’s called freedom of the press because the press should be independent though that is really a theory but still you should try your best to keep that alive.

    It was an opportunity that could not be passed up and shows that you are hitting the big times! Be proud!

    We should not be vilifying a man who is doing a job that he is overqualified for if you are going to look at credentials but he is trying to make change from within. He didn’t create the original template for McDonald’s but I can see he is trying to work within it’s limitations.

    In the end, no one is forcing people to eat there. I don’t like the corporate mentality but they introduced many innovative business practices and employees who have worked are some of the best co-workers I have had cos they are well trained to begin with.

    McDonald’s could still ignore what people say about them but you can see they are listening by trying to make small changes.

  8. I might get slapped on the side of my head by some of your readers, but…

    McDonald’s is a business. ALL businesses are there to make a sale. When you go to dim-sum, you put in your order, but then you get the waiters walking around with a big tray full of a dim-sum item, and they too are trying to sell you something you didn’t order initially.

    “likes to see McDonalds keep moving towards healthier food and continue to stop pushing supersize fries; and it doesn’t have to be soy burgers.”

    In reply to that, I think McDonald’s is doing a great job in introducing a healthier menu. There ARE healthy options.in my opinion, they have alot more healthier options than any other fast food joint! It’s whether you order them or not. But people DON’T naturally order the healthy items, because McDonald’s are known for their burgers or fries. I’m on a tight budget. So every once in a blue moon I take my kids to a fast food place. The only “fast food” restaurant I’ve taken them is McDonald’s. My preference. I cook most of the time, so I know my kids are healthy and have a good diet. But when they’re good, I let them choose, and they want the McDonald’s Happy Meal. LOL.

    As well as them “pushing” supersize fries…it’s a BUSINESS. Even banks try to SELL you RRSP’s. And the thing is, you CAN say “no” to supersizing. You can overeat anywhere. McDonald’s doesn’t have a gun to you head to supersize your meal.

  9. In the Philippines,all Mcdonalds stores are owned by local people who save years to buy a franchise and generate thousands of jobs locally.To many Filipinos Mcdonalds is not daily food but special occasion food eaten 2-3 times a month.The food is generally unhealthy but so are many others are much unhealthier.Remember Crispy Pata and Sisig Ben!!Anyway just my humble opinion

  10. I thought you first question was entirely fair. He should have had some ready replies to that one even if the wording is straight from McD’s PR department.

  11. Thanks for posting this Ben! It was an interesting interview, and awe-inspiring to be there. I guess the answer to “Junk food. Why?” is “Because McDonald’s started out selling burgers and fries — it is our cornerstone”. I agree with the other readers that there are lots of healthier optons at McDonald’s than ever before.

    I hope Chef Dan can use his creativity, plus McDonald’s awesome buying power and influence in the market to drive a change in “fast food” that is satisfying AND provides a healthy meal.

  12. I do not worship McDs like some other people, but I also don’t carry the same hatred towards it that a lot of other people do. I think Supersize Me was a huge public outcry for the company to revise some of its archaic foodstuffs and policies. HOWEVER, anyone who doesn’t recognize that Supersize Me offers an extremely skewed view of nutrition and food. There will always be adipose tissue buildup if you intake more calories than you burn. It’s a fact of life. Walking 5000 steps a day (as an ‘average’ American) is NOT enough exercize if you’re going to be intaking thousands of calories and fat. Let’s take an example: If I decided to buy organic, locally grown food, cooked it however I wanted, stuffed my face with it, and walked 5000 steps, I’d be completely fat too! Let’s say I have 5 eggs, 4 slices of hearty non-trimmed bacon doused in maple syrup from my backyard, followed up by an all natural rich youghurt smoothie infused with honey and papaya. (Follow this trend for all other meals) THENNN I walk 5000 steps a day wooooo!! Gee. Wonder if I’ll become fat then? I’ve got a brilliant idea! Why don’t… I make a movie out of it, advocating how buying too much from organic farmers is a bad, bad thing. Yes, a lot of food in McDs isn’t healthy, but eating it 3 times a day? By walking to McDonalds, he could have equally gone to a salad bar and gotten takeout. It’s about the choices you make in life. Yes, McDonalds is a corporation, but we also have to see the good things that corporations do. They a) create jobs and b) contribute a lot back to the community. Look at Ronald McDonald house and McDonalds supporting our CANADIAN ATHLETES, since our government is too poor to. Microsoft is a corporation and look what Bill Gates is doing for the world with his foundation now. Three. BILLION. Dollars. A YEAR. To provide every life on Earth with healthcare; making it a RIGHT and not a luxury. Now because some people have obsessions with their computers, should we start making movies about how horrible Microsoft is?

  13. PS. McDonald’s did introduce veggie burgers with Yves patties. It failed. They listened, tried and failed. What can they do but give the people what they want with side options for the occasional healthy eater?

  14. I think McDonalds move to go towards healthier but still stick with burger is brilliant. I would not say that McDonalds is totally awful or good for you. To eat McDonalds once in a while to have the fun in your life is a good balance between your health and food.

    Calorie-wise, McDonalds is pretty crazy and all their food is processed previously or frozen. This becomes really unhealthy.

    But, honestly, everywhere you go, if you eat burger and fries and finish them both. You’ll be taking at least 1000 calories. Same thing with McDonalds here.

  15. Honestly, McDonalds isn’t much worse from you than getting the 2+3 items + starchmsg combo at the local Fortune Wok in the food court. Yet these other chains don’t get the same negative press that McDonalds does.

    At least McDonalds is attempting to make small changes. I think Fortune Wok has been offering the same glowing sweet and sour goop for decades.

  16. I cook almost everyday from scratch for my family, anything from Chinese to Indian, French, Italian, Indonesian etc etc.

    But I also love McDonald’s, I dented my car once because I passed by a McDonalds at night and felt like having their fries. And they were having some work done outside and my car was too long…

    McDonald’s is a treat for my children. Once in a while they get their soda, fried food and burgers. It’s sugar and fat but it’s fun, happy food. Eating is about balance and experience. I do not believe in depriving my children of junk food – it will only make them want it more. And when I make my own burgers with better quality beef and all, they actually tell me that mine’s better than McDonald’s 🙂

    Your reader who left you because you accepted this interview should at least have read what you have written before doing so. Much of the Chinese food served in American takeouts are not any healthier (all fat and sugar in the sauces) and they are not even fun.

    I think it must be great fun doing this interview, keep up the good work!

  17. If you feel like your camera equipment isn’t up to par when going to one of these events, just give me a call and I’ll lend you something that looks substantial enough. Or better yet…you could just take me with you!

    I don’t have any sort of hate for McDonald’s. I mean, I have happy memories of the place as a kid even though I learned quickly that their food isn’t good for you. But then again, I also learned that the majority of stuff that tastes good isn’t good for you. I think it was a rather good thing for me that my taste outgrew McDonald’s and I actually don’t like any of their food other than McNugget’s and their fries, but only if they’re cooked just prior to serving. There’s nothing worse than McDonald’s food that’s been sitting there for more than five minutes…

    I think most of the animosity is that McDonald’s is making people unhealthy and making an enormous profit off of it. Not so much here in Canada perhaps but the evidence is everywhere in America. It’s no secret that their food is made from the cheapest possible ingredients and boosted with flavor enhancers and such so mask the poor quality of what goes into their sandwiches and such. I mean, sure they use real eggs but I’m more scared of what’s in the sausage patty or the burgers.

    Yes, they’ve made strides to make their food healthier but they’ve also increased their number of just wicked unhealthy options. I mean, McGriddle anyone? Who thought it was a good idea to make a sausage sandwich from pancakes soaked in syrup!? You might as well have that Krispy Kreme burger!

    …and yes, their new McNugget sauces are gross. Well, just the Sichauan one. I tried it during the Olympics when I couldn’t stop too long for food and it was disgusting. They didn’t have the mango one so I assume that one is decent since there seems to be a shortage.

  18. Ben,

    Awesome condensed write-up of the interview. You really do Canada (especially Vancouver) proud! I love a few MacDonald`s food because they are comfort food for me. They elicit happy memories of my youth, similar to some of my mom`s cooking.

    As unhealthy as a few menu items may be (deep fried or high calories), it is always one`s choice to select the meal. Better choices would be to go without the sauce or mayo, or reduce the use of the salad dressing. All of us need to take responsibilites for our actions and choices rather than blaming anyone else or corporations. McD had been very proactive in presenting the calorie contents of virutally all menu items in their stores and on the food packaging. Consumers need to be educated and informed to make wise choices. Most importantly, we need to care more about what we eat.

    My hands down favorite McD item is the Egg McMuffin, what a marvelous innovation when it was introduced. Although it certainly has shrunk over the years, unlike my waistline. Nothing too fake with that item, except fo the tube back bacon. My children just cannot resist McD fries.

    I admire some of your readers who say they cook most of the meals for their family, because of budgetary reasons. Truth is, it is LOVE that you are providing your family, to take the time to prepare their nourishment.

    A couple of question I would ask Chef Dan:
    1) Why was the McPizza taken off the Canadian menu
    2) Will we see the return of the Shamrock Shake (green, mint flavour during St. Patrick`s Day) anytime soon

    Great job as usual Ben! Previleged to be your reader.

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