I’m a Foodie — and I Love McDonald’s
Industrial food science is the new molecular gastronomy
I consider myself a foodie.
I’ve eaten at some of the world’s best restaurants--from the three-Michelin-started pastoral splendor of Meadowood, to the cozy rooms of Alice Waters' iconic Chez Panisse, to restaurants owned by Iron Chefs and cultural legends like Ayesha Curry.
I’m an avid follower of Thomas Keller, and have visited every branch of his fantastic Bouchon bistro, from Napa to Vegas to New York. I spend an ungodly portion of my income at Whole Foods. I’m fully willing to drop $75 on a really good duck breast.
But (and this really shouldn’t have to be a “but"), I also love, love, love McDonald’s.
Supersize Me left me unfazed — the burgers frankly looked a lot better to me than the vegan fare at the end. When I read Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser’s scathing expose about the fast food industry, it made me hungry.
Why do I love McDonald’s? Here’s a few reasons--and some reasons foodies shouldn’t turn up their noses at the iconic Golden Arches.
Food Science at its Finest
There’s a big trend right now towards a cooking movement called Molecular Gastronomy. The movement seeks to break down foods and flavor into their constituent molecular parts, and reassemble/explore them in new and innovative ways.
The kitchen of a Molecular Gastronomy restaurant looks more like a lab than a space for making food. Out are cutting boards and mixers. In are centrifuges, liquid-nitrogen-powered flash freezers, and rotor-stator homogenizers.
But its tenets have trickled down to restaurants everywhere. You can now get a sous vide egg bite at Starbucks, and scientific ingredients like xanthan gum are making their way into the toolkits of many high-end chefs, and even enlightened home cooks.
When it comes to science, though, Molecular Gastronomy has nothing on McDonald’s.
Picture this as a culinary challenge. You need to create burgers and fries that will appeal to nearly every member of a 300 million+ person nation (I’m ignoring McDonald’s brisk international business for now). You’ll need about 6.5 million of these per day.
They need to be delivered through a serpentine supply chain to over 13,000 locations. And once they get there, they need to taste absolutely consistent--whether they were eaten at your flagship store in Times Square, or a truckstop restaurant attached to a gas station along Interstate 5 at 2am.
They also need to be cooked fast by people with limited experience, going from storage (often frozen) to a customer in a matter of minutes. To top it all off, your raw ingredients for all this come from a wildly diverse set of suppliers, including as many as 400,000 individual farms.
Oh, and the end result needs to be dirt cheap, rivaling the lowest cost meals a customer could cook at home.
The fact that McDonald’s pulls this off at all is remarkable. The fact that their food tastes delicious (or at least delicious enough to inspire 24 billion customer visits per year) is a small miracle.
How do they do it? By employing enough food science, psychology and high-tech equipment to make the most devoted Molecular Gastronomist’s head spin.
Every aspect of McDonald’s menu is carefully broken down, analyzed and optimized. Take the fries, for example. The originals were cooked in beef tallow, which is no longer supportable from a health perspective.
So instead, McDonald’s has carefully engineered a scent for their fries that exactly mimics potatoes cooking in beef fat. It’s basically a perfume for potatoes that tricks our brains into thinking they’re the OG beefy fries, despite the fact that the modern ones are cooked in cholesterol-free vegetable oil.
McDonald’s also adds dextrose to their fries in a perfectly controlled proportion. This engages the third leg of the holy trinity of fat, salt and sugar. The fries don’t taste sweet per se — but your brain detects that the sugars are there, and enjoys the harmony with the salt and fat.
And that’s just the beginning. The company is also obsessive about the presentation of its fries. Only the top potatoes are chosen (yes, they’re actually made from potatoes), and these are cut to a uniform size by a super high speed water gun combined with tiny knives. The end result is then dyed to achieve a totally consistent, appealing color, so the fries look the same no matter the season or batch of potatoes (and never turn brown).
How does McDonald’s know the precise balance of ingredients needed to achieve the ideal color and flavor? They use both an army of focus groups and wildly sophisticated technologies, including a mechanical mouth which employs up to 250 sensors to make sure their fries have the exact right mouthfeel.
It’s an insanely detailed process. This attention to detail is why it can take McDonald’s 6 months to change a single ingredient in a single menu item. And that’s considered fast, compared to how long it took before today’s tech was available.
When you bite into a McDonald’s French fry, you’re not just eating some cooked potatoes. You’re experiencing a complex, multi-million dollar culinary performance drawing on the world’s best food science, intended to engage all your senses, from smell (beef tallow aroma) and taste (perfect balance of sugar, fat and salt) to sight (ideal shape and color), and even touch and sound (which both contribute to mouthfeel).
Every aspect of your experience has been carefully studied, tested and analyzed by researchers and psychologists. It’s also been run through millions of dollars worth of cutting edge equipment, much of which is custom-built just for the fast food industry.
Sure, the end goal is to sell you more French fries. To which I say, “So what?” That doesn’t obscure the beauty of the fact that so much thought, effort and intention has gone into the creation of such a seemingly simple, everyday experience.
Shakespeare’s plays were the beer-soaked, baudy, commercial entertainment of the masses in their time. Now they’re considered the greatest works ever created in the English language. Are they somehow tarnished by the fact that they were written for paying audiences, or were enjoyed by the masses and not some high-brow elite?
More to the point, McDonald’s scientific wizardry is not demonstrably different than what’s going on in the hallowed kitchens of Moto or Atelier Crenn — it’s just on a much grander scale.
If anything, their continent-spanning scale makes the science of McDonald’s food transformations even more impressive. If you’re impressed by flavored photographs or dishes made of smoke, you should also be impressed by the incredible scientific alchemy behind the transformation of a simple piece of fried potato into something millions of people want to eat each day.
It Ties into a Much Longer History
Burnt is not a very good movie. In fact, it’s been called the worst food movie of all time. It’s basically a poorly disguised reference to Anthony Bourdain, poorly executed. But it does have the redeeming quality of starring Bradley Cooper. And it has one scene that’s absolutely transcendent .
Cooper’s character, Adam Jones, is a rockstar chef who has struggled with addiction. He’s trying to get his life back on track, and starting a new restaurant with the goal of getting three Michelin stars (spoiler alert: he succeeds). He’s interviewing a new sous chef, and chooses to meet him at a Burger King.
His new potential colleague isn’t impressed, and refuses to eat fast food. Jones grills him about this choice:
Justify why it costs $500 more to eat at a place where we work than it does at a place like this. — No. — ’Cause you can’t. Because the food here is made with too much fat and too much salt and too many cheap cuts of meat. You just described most classic French peasant dishes. Burger King is peasants doing what peasants do, giving a cheap cut of meat a little style. Goulash, bourguignon, cassoulet. Shall I go on?
Most McDonald’s or Burger King customers would probably bristle about being called “peasants”. But the basic concept of the scene is absolutely spot on.
Fast food is all about taking inexpensive ingredients (ground beef, potatoes), and transforming them into something varied and appealing. Often, this means adding sugar, salt or fat (like the dextrose on McDonald’s fries) to bump up the flavor without adding much cost.
As a society, we’re very quick to crucify fast food places for their “unhealthy” food, and to project all kinds of deeper societal problems (obesity, sugar addition, etc.) onto their menus.
But it’s very easy to forget that people have been embellishing cheap foods for millenia. And many of the dishes that we now consider worthy of fine dining actually originated as ways to transform cheap ingredients into something tastier and more interesting.
Take cassoulet, which the scene references. This slow-cooked stew of pork fat and white beans is now considered a core dish of French cuisine. One popular French restaurant in the Napa Valley foodie enclave Yountville offers it as an entree, and charges $27 for it. But it was originally developed as a way for French peasants to turn their meager ingredients into something more palatable.
And it’s not like cassoulet is health food. Two cups of the stew contain almost 1,000 calories, as well as 90% of the RDV of fat, and over 166mg of cholesterol. In contrast, a McDonald’s Double Quarter Pounder contains 720 calories and 51% of the RDV of fat.
That’s not to say that you should eat either cassoulet or a Quarter Pounder all the time. Both skew towards the indulgent.
But in the end, as Burnt points out, there’s not a big difference between a McDonald’s burger and a cassoulet (or Coq Au Vin, or matzoh ball soup.) They’re all dishes built around the idea of taking cheap, basic ingredients and making them more appetizing.
That one is elevated to the status of fine dining, while the other is the pariah of the foodie world, is entirely arbitrary. And it’s probably way more rooted in social class than most enlightened foodies would be comfortable admitting.
So before you spurn that McDonald’s burger, remember to place it in its historical context. Will the Quarter Pounder grace the menus of fine dining establishments 200 years down the line? Probably not.
But if you told 18th century French peasants that their humble stew would be served in the finest restaurants a centuries hence, they’d probably laugh you all the way to the guillotine.
Tastes change in often surprising ways. The cheap eats of today can easily become the gourmet foodie favorites of tomorrow.
The Service is Great
Michelin starred restaurants consistently have fantastic service.
The Guide Michelin doesn’t screw around. Their inspectors arrive at restaurants unannounced and incognito, and test every aspect of the experience. They’ll send multiple inspectors to confirm star ratings, or even fly in an expert from another country to verify a rating.
Visit a Korean restaurant in NYC with a star? The Guide probably flew in an inspector from Korea to evaluate its food and service.
But beyond this upper echelon, I’ve been to tons of fancy, expensive restaurants with terrible service.
At a classic, expensive, white-table-cloth place in Sausalito, California, I recently had a waiter roll his eyes at my order, tell me to stop talking, and deliver my food 45 minutes after it was promised. The meal was still in the three figure range.
I can honestly say, though, that I’ve never had bad service, a grumpy or disinterested employee, or a major delay or issue at a McDonald’s. In my experience, the people have all been friendly, knowledgeble about the menu and ordering process, and easy to deal with.
Maybe it’s a quirk of the San Francisco Bay Area. But I suspect it goes deeper than that.
McDonald’s realizes that it can’t pay as well as fancy, top-tier places, where a head waiter can make upwards of $80,000 per year. So what it lacks in pay, it tries to make up for with flexibility, training, and cash-based rewards for top performance.
McDonald’s also invests a ton of resources into developing training programs. In many ways, this is a necessity. The company turns over about 1/3 of its staff each year. So to keep a knowledgeable workforce, it has to continually hire people (60,000 per year) and train them efficiently.
The company even operates its Hamburger University, a 130,000 training center in Chicago. The school has a lower acceptance rate than Harvard, and trains the top tier of franchisees and managers.
Does this always mean a great experience for employees? Like with any large company — especially one that often pays minimum wage--the answer is that it depends.
McDonald’s employees were active in the Fight for 15 movement, advocating for a higher minimum wage, and some are involved in ongoing litigation over sexual harrassment. But at the same time, the company receives tons of posts providing positive feedback from former employees, and has won awards for employee engagement.
I can’t speak to the experience of McDonald’s employees, as I’ve never worked there. But as a customer, I can say that every staff member I’ve interacted with has been great--and that’s more than I can say for some much fancier, pricier places.
Fast Food For Foodies
There’s a tendency among foodies to dismiss fast food as low-brow, terrible for you, and guilty of the worst sin of all: being boring.
Yes, McDonald’s is not going to produce the same level of innovation as the French Laundry--or at least not the same sort.
But to dismiss the restaurant on these grounds is to give it far too little credit. Delivering meals to hundreds of millions of people each day, using simple ingredients to create something consistently appealing, delivering good customer service despite losing 1/3 of your staff per year, and keeping your prices at rock bottom is no small feat.
It requires culinary innovation that’s just as impressive as the wizardry taking place at a starred establishment. It’s just on a different scale and applied towards different goals.
Ask yourself, too, if your feelings about McDonald’s are more classist or peer-influenced than based on your actual experiences with the restaurant’s food. Would you gladly spend thirty bucks on a cassoulet, but turn up your nose at a Big Mac? If so, why?
And if your knee-jerk reaction is to say that McDonald’s is a big corporation, and these are necessarily evil, I offer you the following challenge: give up Starbucks. Also, ask your local barista what he earns before sneering at McDonald’s hiring and employee compensation record.
Overall, I think the biggest reason not to dismiss McDonald’s (and fast food in general) is that foodie culture is supposed to be all about embracing different culinary experiences.
If you refuse to try fast food on general principle, you’re cutting yourself off from a whole genre of food experiences--and one that’s very present in the lives of a huge part of the world’s population.
So even if you have to tell yourself that it’s some kind of social experiment, get off your high horse and buy yourself a Big Mac.
Maybe you won’t find yourself “lovin' it.” But you might find something to appreciate, or at least walk away with a better understanding of a culinary experience that millions of people share every day.
Connection, adventure and cultural understanding are core tenants of foodie culture. There’s no reason you can’t find those under a set of Golden Arches.