We dish with Chef Dan, McDonald’s Executive Chef and Director of Culinary Innovation
“It’s my responsibility to ask questions. And I’d rather ask “Why not?” instead of “Why?”
After graduating top of his class from the Culinary Institute of America and becoming Executive Sous Chef at Dallas' Café Pacific and Chef de Cuisine at The Four Seasons (among other accomplishments), Chef Dan joined McDonald's in August of 2004. We met with him at the McDonald's Test Kitchen.
Chef Dan Coudreaut, Executive Chef and Director of Culinary Innovation
You've been called "The Most Powerful Chef in America" who affects the taste buds of 27 million plus diners a day. How do you feel about that?
I get a lot of ribbing from friends on that one. What I can tell you is that I work with the most powerful restaurant in America.
Are people surprised to find out that McDonald's has an Executive Chef with a fine dining background?
Yes, even family members! People wanted to know why I was going from a top fine dining restaurant to go flip burgers. The next question I usually get is: "Are you a real chef?" What's really interesting is that having an Executive Chef isn't a new idea for McDonald's. Ray Kroc hand-picked the famous Chef René to come on board in the 1980s. He helped create the McRib Sandwich and the Chicken McNuggets.
How did you get the job?
I was contacted by a recruiter, and went through a series of interviews. They narrowed the field from 20 candidates down to two finalists, and flew us to McDonald's Head Office to cook for the leadership team. We did a cooking demo. I made a wild berry smoothie two ways—yogurt and soy milk, mixed in some peaches and honey and a little grape juice. Next, I made an energy muffin with apple butter, yogurt, lots of raisins, dried fruit and nuts. Lastly, I did strawberry cream cheese filled crepes, where I took the mixed berries again and warmed them in the microwave so they released a little juice, which became a kind of sauce and I poured it on top.
What's your role here at McDonald's?
My key responsibility is to help the creative team of chefs ideate and develop new menus for McDonald's approximately 14,000 restaurants. We brainstorm and test hundreds of menu items each month. It's fun, it's very free flowing, and it's all about innovation, creativity and teamwork. I'm charged with making sure the products we have are on trend: bold, flavorful and exciting. In my kitchen, no idea is a bad idea. There's nothing stopping us from trying any ingredient—from papaya to pretzels.
How long does it take a menu item to get from the test kitchen into the restaurants?
The menu process can be very long, but it depends on the product. The Snack Wrap was fairly fast, because we used ingredients already in the restaurant. The introduction was pretty streamlined—it took about a year from idea to restaurant implementation, and was a big success.
What do you take into consideration when developing a menu item?
Taste is by far the most important factor. It's naturally number one. I also have to think about sustainability. We need a controllable supply of quality product that can be guaranteed to our restaurants. I've got to think about American palates, portability, and the volume of ingredients that item would require. We also have to be customer-centric and follow trends and the way people are eating. We have to be careful we don't forget about taste and fun, and we need to offer a choice. The challenge is to create something that will taste the same in Alaska as it does right here in the Test Kitchen.
Made For You
Learn about the evolution and development of McDonald’s menu offerings.
I'm all about simplicity and balance. How we approach it at McDonald's is to make sure there's a balance on our menu, a wide range of items to suit a wide range of needs.
What does quality mean to you?
Quality means freshness. The shorter the timeline between farm and restaurant, the higher the quality. The best apple I ever had growing up I picked myself at an orchard. So my challenge with McDonald's supply chain is to tighten that timeline. I'm always asking suppliers "How can we do that more quickly and efficiently? Is this the best we can do?"
What's next for the Culinary Team?
We've just scratched the surface here. We've learned not to mess with the core menu items—I personally would not change a single sesame seed—and we're also excited about pushing the envelope and exploring new menu items. It's my responsibility to ask questions, and I'd always rather ask "Why not?" instead of "Why?"
What's your long-term goal for the McDonald's menu?
To stay relevant. And to change people's perceptions about our food not being real. I want people to know that there are a lot of dedicated, passionate professional people out there who think about that menu every single day.