He has a hand in the diets of more than 26 million Americans every day, yet most folks wouldn’t recognize his name.
Chef Daniel Coudreaut is senior director of culinary innovation for McDonald’s USA, shaping the menu that we’ll gaze upon when we pull into the drive-through or walk up to the counter of one of the nearly 14,000 U.S. outlets of the fast food giant.
Coudreaut was in Cleveland recently to chat about his company on a goodwill trip tied to the release of McDonald’s new banana nut oatmeal with fresh blueberries. He sat down at the inner-city McDonald’s on Carnegie Avenue and unflinchingly faced questions ranging from his company’s role in the current obesity epidemic to exactly what’s in a Chicken McNugget.
With a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, this one-time child actor used to cook at the Four Seasons Hotel in Dallas and other fine restaurants before switching to corporate kitchens. He joined McDonald’s in 2004. The year coincided with the release of “Super Size Me,” the documentary by Morgan Spurlock, who chronicled his physical decline after eating nothing but McDonald’s food (often super-sized meals) for a month.
Coudreaut isn’t shy about defending his menu or about the fact that McDonald’s is a corporation interested in making money. Its menu reflects what sells, he said.
“I don’t see anything on the menu that’s unhealthy,” Coudreaut said.
A year after the Spurlock film was released, McDonald’s customer base had increased by 1 million — those are the folks that McDonald’s and Coudreaut listen to and aim to please.
When asked whether he feels a responsibility for his company’s role in the current American obesity epidemic, Coudreaut said he feels mostly a responsibility to his own children, a daughter, age 11, and a son, 7, to guide their eating habits and control what they eat. “I control what goes into their mouths,” he said.
And yes, his children eat at McDonald’s about once a week, most often when his wife is shuttling his daughter to soccer games and practice. His son still prefers the Happy Meal for the toy inside, and yes, that includes Chicken McNuggets.
Coudreaut defends McNuggets, saying they are the same thing that culinarians would refer to as a “forcemeat.” Now made with all white meat (they used to be made with dark meat), the chicken is ground, shaped, tempura battered and fried.
“I feed them to my children,” he said.
Coudreaut, too, eats his company’s food, enjoying a Big Mac about once each week.
But he said, just as when he eats any other fattening food, he is careful to balance his diet to accommodate it.
Coudreaut noted that the average McDonald’s customer eats at the fast food restaurant roughly three times each month. He questioned what was happening “with the other 87 meals.”
He also pointed out that McDonald’s is not the only restaurant that sells fattening foods. “I’m sure I could eat a 2,000 calorie meal at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry,” Coudreaut said.
“I feel that if we were to close our doors of all of the McDonald’s tomorrow, the obesity problem would not go away,” he said.
To Coudreaut, it’s all about choice, balance and moderation. There are healthful items on the McDonald’s menu — oatmeal, yogurt parfaits, salads, grilled chicken and low-fat milk. But burgers, fries, and milkshakes can all be factored into a healthful diet too, he said.
In some cases, he wishes the corporation could move more quickly. The current new line of McCafe Fruit Smoothies has been a great success for the restaurant chain, but took four years to get into stores. There are plenty of reasons for that. The Wild Berry Smoothie contains blackberries. Had McDonald’s rolled out the product sooner, the corporation would have bought up more than a third of all blackberries grown in the United States. So, plans were delayed until the company could have its growers plant more blackberries.
The company also had to have smoothie machines manufactured and retro-fitted for its restaurants. When you are a giant like McDonald’s, innovations take time.
“Are we perfect? Absolutely not. Are we getting better? Every day,” Coudreaut said.
The choice, as he sees it, is the customers’.
It’s pretty hard to argue that anyone doesn’t know a steady diet of high-fat fast food will make you fat and damage your health.
And it’s pretty hard for us to try to abdicate responsibility for what we put into our mouths, or what we allow our children to eat.
The moral of the story is, if you demand healthful food, McDonald’s will give it to you. As a corporation McDonald’s is interested in making money, so it will sell what sells. And the company is very keen on listening to its customers and letting their preferences help to shape its menu.
That’s why there are now apple slices in the Happy Meal and smaller orders of french fries, and why the fries are now cooked in canola oil, not beef tallow like they used to be.
The chain’s new oatmeal, which is less than 300 calories per serving, has been hugely successful since it was introduced last year and will continue to enjoy its spot on the menu because folks are buying it.
Look in the mirror: You are part of those billions and billions sold.
If you think McDonald’s is part of the current obesity problem, there are two things you can do — stop eating there, or when you do eat there, select the most healthful offerings and make it clear to the person in charge of the store that you want to see more of them.
Coudreaut said McDonald’s is an active listener. As lifestyles change, so has its menu, if for no other reason than it makes good business sense. Satisfied customers tend to return.
Which means it is up to us to make sure we are delivering the message.