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Top chefs take on McDonald’s

When my kids were younger, we had our share of birthday parties, after-school snacks and dinners-on-the-run at McDonald’s. While my sons munched on chicken nuggets or cheeseburgers with fries, I tried to be “good” and have a salad or frozen yogurt. But there really weren’t many lower fat choices back in the 1990s.

Of course, that’s changed considerably, now that McDonald’s has put more entrée salads, grilled chicken wraps, oatmeal, smoothies and other healthier items on the menu. And there will be more to come. Last month, the mega-chain announced a partnership with the Clinton Foundation and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation in a global commitment to offer improved nutrition choices.

But I’m all about balancing small indulgences with smart choices, and those chicken nuggets that I snuck from my kids’ stash were pretty tasty, especially when they came out piping hot from the fryer. They became even tastier in the hands of several celebrated chefs, as they put their personal spin on McNuggets and other classics at the McDonald’s 2013 Chef Event in New York City on Sept. 26. The catch: The chefs had to rely on ingredients in McDonald’s pantry and walk-in—plus only a few additional seasonings—to build their dishes.

What the invited guests (media, franchisees and suppliers) tasted was pretty remarkable—and pretty unrecognizable as McDonald’s fare. We were greeted with a Mango Mojito, a refreshing on-trend cocktail using McD’s Mango-Pineapple Smoothie as a base. For the seated multi-course dinner that followed, the chefs followed the directive to create “a transforming dining experience of  ‘fast food’ to ‘good food served fast.’”

First up was chef Dale Talde’s rendition of Kung Pao Chicken—an inspired way to dress up those selfsame chicken nuggets in Asian garb. Talde, chef-partner in Talde, Pork Slope and Thistle Hill Tavern in New York City and a Top Chef finalist, tapped his Asian-American heritage to develop his recipe. Szechuan peppercorns enlivened the sweet-and-sour sauce, and rice wine vinegar, peanuts and iceberg lettuce added textural contrast. Not a bad way to pump up the flavor of those kiddie-meal faves.

Next, we were treated to a Tortilla Espanola with Garlic and Saffron Aioli. James Tahhan, a Lain chef who appears on a couple of cooking shows on Telemundo, took the hash browns and eggs from McDonald’s morning menu, threw in some diced onions, and made his version of the popular Spanish tapa. His Apple and Cucumber Chipotle Salad on the side contained apples, cucumbers, red onions, spring mix and chipotle BBQ and honey-mustard sauces—all McDonald’s staples. Haven’t noticed any saffron on the McD’s menu lately—and we probably never will, as it’s pretty pricey—but that came from chef Tahhan’s own stash. I think this can be adapted to the McDonald’s menu (sans saffron aioli) without a hitch.

My personal favorite was a Bold BBQ Chicken entrée by chef Aaron McCargo Jr. This guy worked at McDonald’s as a crew member, so maybe he has an “in” for raiding the pantry and finding the most adaptable ingredients. His combination of crispy chicken, hash browns, chipotle BBQ sauce, onions, eggs and applewood-smoked bacon really made me clean my plate! The secret ingredient in his sauce was espresso—an inspired touch that was available because of McDonald’s upgraded coffee program. It’s obvious why chef McCargo won season four of “The Next Food Network Star” and now has his own show, “Big Daddy’s House.” He knows how to tweak comfort food with bold splashes of color and flavor.

Chef Jessica Foust, a McDonald’s corporate chef, registered dietitian and CIA grad, prepared the final entrée and dessert. She took some standard ingredients to another level, first serving up Slow-Cooked Beef with Blueberry Pomegranate Sauce and Mac Fry Gnocchi. This was an ambitious way to menu the ground beef that goes into McDonald’s iconic burgers, but it worked—especially with the sweet-tangy sauce made from blueberry-pomegranate smoothie base. Before I took a bite, I thought that gnocchi made from french fries was a bit of a stretch, but chef Foust has a knack for combining ingredients in just the right proportions. Not quite like the gnocchi I ate in room, but satisfying.

We finished the multi-course dinner with a dessert inspired by the infamous Cronut. Who would have thought that a baked-from-scratch Pumpkin Spice Biznut—a biscuit-donut hybrid—could come out of McDonald’s kitchen? Chef Foust whipped up an impressive sweet ending from McDonald’s biscuit mix and pumpkin spice latte syrup (again from the upgraded coffee program), incorporating praline topping, cream cheese and whipped cream.  The presentation was pretty impressive too, plated like a dessert in a fine-dining restaurant.

I have to say I would welcome any of these items—especially that mango mojito—at a McDonald’s near me. While it’s doubtful that will happen anytime soon, it’s pretty amazing what chefs can do when they’re turned loose in a fast-food kitchen.

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