The contestants on Iron Chef have it easy compared with Dan Coudreaut, director of culinary innovation at McDonald's (MCD). Sure, the TV duelists have just an hour to whip up five dishes incorporating the same ingredients. But check out Coudreaut's constraints: He's only allowed to prepare dishes that can be made by entry-level help at every one of the chain's U.S. 14,000 locations and from ingredients available in industrial quantities year-round. And, oh yeah, the food has to appeal every day to millions of customers who don't have a lot of money or time or the stomach for anything too unusual.
His challenge is apparent after a few minutes in his test kitchen, which is housed behind glass walls near a row of cubicles in McDonald's suburban Chicago headquarters. Dressed in a chef's smock, Coudreaut mixes toasted coriander and cumin with cilantro stems, lemongrass, ginger, and chilies in a blender. He stirs the spicy paste into coconut milk, which he reduces over high heat and adds to a pan of sauteed eggplant. And what might become of his red curry eggplant? After playing around more with the recipe, he says, some of the flavors might make their way into a ranch sauce in a few years.
Coudreaut, or Chef Dan as he's called within McDonald's, has navigated pretty well within his straits. Since hired on in 2004, he has led the creation of the Snack Wrap, the latest iterations of McDonald's chicken-topped salad entree, the Fruit and Walnut Salad, McCafé espresso-based coffees, and, most recently, the 1/3-lb. Angus burger. (He has blown it, too. McDonald's dropped the too-adventurous Hot 'n' Spicy McChicken sandwich in 2007 after just six months on the market and disappointing sales.)
Angus Burger Advantage
The stream of new products is paying off. While restaurant sales have been sinking industrywide since the recession hit in 2007, McDonald's quarterly same-store sales have continued to climb. The string, which began in 2003, continues into the third quarter, with a 1.7% increase in the U.S. in August and 2.6% in July. CEO James A. Skinner credited the gains to premium coffees and the Angus burger.
The Angus burger followed a typical course, Coudreaut says. After seeing rivals such as Burger King (BKC) and Hardee's (CKR) boost sales with heavyweight cheeseburgers, McDonald's franchisees petitioned the company in early 2007 to come up with a premium sandwich of its own. Coudreaut invited chefs from McDonald's suppliers, including Cargill and Kraft Foods (KFT), to his test kitchen in Oak Brook, Ill., and together with his four-person staff they began cooking. They started with 20 types of patties, in various sizes and made from different cuts of beef, and 30 buns.
They tried a ciabatta roll and Italian flat bread, for instance, but the company's marketing team steered them back to a traditional bakery bun. "Americans have a sense of what a burger is," Coudreaut notes. "They want a sesame-seed bun."
After six months of team cooking and market research, Coudreaut weeded the choices down to one basic sandwich, with three sets of toppings. Then restaurant owners in key markets began testing the product to see if employees could follow the recipe reliably—McDonald's kitchens weren't using bacon, sliced red onion, or sauteed mushrooms—and if customers liked it enough to spend $3.99 on a fast-food sandwich.
Turns out they could, and they did—the third-pounder was introduced across the U.S. in early July.
The burger, like the Snack Wrap and the Premium Salad, isn't simply a one-off product; it's a "platform." While the Big Mac's makeup hasn't changed since its invention in 1967, the Angus burger can be topped with something new whenever Coudreaut hits on another recipe, providing McDonald's a quick, low-cost way to refresh its menu. In fact, the company is already testing a chipotle BBQ bacon version in Southern California.
Coudreaut, 43, may seem out of place in fast-food. After earning an associate's degree in business administration and management, he became a sous chef in a French bistro in New York. Returning to school, he trained at the Culinary Institute of America and graduated at the top of his class in 1995. He then moved to Dallas where he worked his way up in fine dining to club chef of the Four Seasons Hotel. He recalls that even his mother shook her head when he told her he was moving to McDonald's.
Looking for Inspiration
Coudreaut figures he spends 70% of his workweek in the kitchen; the rest of his days are filled with corporate chores and field trips to McDonald's outlets. He eats out often, but bypasses other quick-serve chains. Instead he goes to independent restaurants, from street vendors in Austin, Tex., to four-star places like Daniel or Per Se in New York, where he says the food is more inspired and inspirational.
And he cooks at home. "It's sad—my profession is my hobby, too." Family meals are usually simple, he says. He's got a 75-sq.-ft. vegetable and herb garden that his 8-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son help him tend.
Coudreaut is cagey about what he's cooking up next. He's no longer restricted to fried meat. As the company's top chef, he has had a big part in expanding McDonald's fare, of course. Though the McDouble cheeseburger is still the company's top product by volume, McDonald's sells more apples than any other restaurant.
Across from Coudreaut's kitchen, there's a sign that his boss, Jeffrey Stratton, McDonald's chief restaurant officer, put up. It reads: "It's not real until it's real in the restaurant." Coudreaut says it stares him in the face every day. "That's the challenge," he says. "We can push the box a little bit. We can expand it. But we cannot break it."