Last week in Brookline, McDonald’s engaged in a curious experiment aimed at improving the brand’s reputation among discerning eaters. Similar perception-altering stunts featuring celebrity chefs and fine dining have taken place in New York and Tokyo. For Boston, the fast food giant paid for Washington Square's Fairsted Kitchen to close to the public for a night so Stephanie Cmar of "Top Chef" seasons 10 and 11 fame could serve local food writers a fancified multi-course meal prepared solely from McDonald’s ingredients.
So I went.
A HAPPIER MEAL
In her opening remarks, Cmar, who joined Fairsted Kitchen as executive chef in May, referred to the importance of engaging in an “honest conversation about food.” She proved her own candor, adding that “designing the menu was hilarious” and mentioning that the first course, a chicken croquette prepared from salvaged McNugget parts “kinda tastes like a corndog.” Cmar seemed to mean that as a compliment, and appropriately so. Corndogs rule, and her McNugget croquette did, too. And the most impressive part is that it did so while indeed tasting resolutely McNuggety.
For the next course, Cmar had passed frozen McDonald’s fries through a meat grinder and reconstituted them as gnocchi, which was served beneath a slick of Bolognese made from the chain’s hamburger and sausage patties. The gnocchi was excellent, partly because Cmar is talented and partly because McDonald’s makes fine fries. The Bolognese was pretty good, too, though an indication that even the best chefs can only take McDonald’s meat so far.
Dessert was one of the donuts for which Cmar is renowned from her Stacked Donuts pop-up days. It was great, but it was also cheating, being “McDonald’s-inspired” in that it employed eggs, sugar, and flour from a McDelivery truck rather than the Fairsted pantry.
BUT WHAT’S THE BIG MCDEAL?
For the better part of six decades, the McDonald’s Corporation excelled at making French fries and money, but in recent years—well, the fries are still good. After a protracted rough patch that led to the ouster of CEO Donald Thompson, the once-dire economic outlook is starting to improve. Global same-store sales were up in the 3rd quarter (though operating revenues continued to decline) and McDonald’s stock continues to rise from its late-January nadir.
But stopping a free fall isn’t the same thing as turning it all around, which is why McDonald’s seems to be searching for ways to recapture market share amid consumers who are increasingly ambivalent toward its core products. Among the many reasons for the chain’s recent struggles, the most glaring may be that the public just doesn’t dig Big Macs as much as it used to. No McMuffin promotion can paper over the fact that erstwhile customers are being lured away by newer burger chains—Shake Shack, Tasty Burger, Smashburger—offering at least the perception of transparency and better, fresher ingredients.
So what did this stunt prove? That Stephanie Cmar is a wicked good cook, and that McDonald’s uses plenty of basic pantry ingredients. And that McDonald’s knows how easy it is to bribe some writers. While the dinner was enjoyable, it was also a cynical ploy that failed to close the perception gap between "McDonald's food" and "good food," because what Cmar served was not McDonald's food in any meaningful way.