McDonald’s looks to Asia for inspiration

Chef Dan Coudreaut. Photo by Elton Lugay

By Elton Lugay

McDonald’s recently invited journalists and bloggers to its Upper West Side branch to drum up interest in its lineup of healthy meals.

The FilAm spoke with Executive Chef Dan Coudreaut who revealed that in his team of 40 people who collaborated on the menu, two were Filipinos. He identified them as Gabby Prats of McCormick Spice Company and Danielle Paris, director of menu management, product innovation and development at McDonald’s Chicago.

“I develop very collaboratively, I fundamentally believe I don’t have all the answers,” he told us. “We constantly challenge each other.”

The menu is a refreshing, not to mention delicious, melange of fruit, cereal, white meat and vegetables. Below, the menu with the calorie equivalent:

Asian Salad

• The Asian Salad is salad greens tossed with edamame (soybeans), snow peas, red bell peppers, mandarin oranges and sliced almonds, and is served with grilled or crispy chicken: 240 calories without chicken; 360 with grilled white meat chicken.

Mango-Pineapple Smoothie

• Mango-Pineapple Smoothie blends fresh ripe mango with citrusy pineapple in low-fat yogurt and a little bit of fruit juice concentrate: 210 calories.

• Fruit & Maple Oatmeal offers two servings of grains and one cup low-fat milk: 390 calories.

The Asian Salad is Chef Dan’s favorite. “I love the fact that I was able to introduce edamame to the American menu,” he said.

There are certain cultures that people look to for inspiration, and the Asian culture is one of them, he said. “If I think about Asian cuisine, I think about lots of vegetables, lots of produce which is a good thing for the human diet.”

We thought the smoothie was quite refreshing, with the sweet taste of ripened mangoes overpowering the pineapple. It had the right consistency, not too thick or too runny. It complemented the Asian Salad nicely.

The salad was appetizing to our taste, but the Huffington Post was skeptical and gave it a grade of B+: “The salad (when unveiled during the press launch) was prepared with all the attention to detail that comes when serving the press — a quality assurance that might not be guaranteed to the regular consumer, especially during a lunchtime rush,.”

Chef Dan, an unrepentant McDonald’s fan (“Even I, as a chef, want to eat a big burger, fries and a milk shake, sometimes”) revealed the challenge to creating new recipes for McDonald’s each year. His team experimented with as much as 1,800 meals, narrowing them down to a select few. “We choose items to satisfy today’s lifestyle and nutrition preferences,” he said.

Asked if the menu was developed in line with Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative to address the issue of childhood obesity, he demurred: “It’s a strategic initiative of McDonald’s that has been in play for years. We are supportive of what the First Lady is trying to do, and McDonald’s is also talking with the First Lady. We think it’s a wonderful thing to do for our country. But I think our menu is a little bit more long-term and has been in the works for quite a long time.”

Chef Dan graduated top of his class from the Culinary Institute of America. He was the executive sous chef at Dallas Cafe Pacific and Chef de Cuisine at The Four Seasons before joining McDonald’s in 2004. Quite a transformative shift from fine dining to fast food.

“I love the brand,” he confided. “My family loves McDonald’s a lot. My 6-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter think I’m a hero at home.”

He continued: “McDonald’s is an American icon and if I can influence the way millions of Americans eat a day, what better way to do it than work at McDonald’s. Rather than have a restaurant and influence 150 people, why not try and influence 26 million people?”

The leading fast-food chain is getting praise for taking the initiative to make its menu healthy and truly kid-friendly, but a certain wariness persists. The HealthMad blogger noted how the McDonald’s smoothie may be more nutritious than soft drink at a reasonable 210 calories. But it also has 54 grams of sugar, “the equivalent of two Snickers bars.” The blogger, a physician, said she would suggest the smoothie be made a dessert alternative “not a drink to sip with a meal.”

Chef Dan said the search for the balanced diet is a work in progress. “It’s my job that our menu has those options that people truly enjoy,” he said.

Queens resident Elton Lugay is a journalist, publicist and community events organizer.

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