Monday, November 5, 2012


Egg Salad
Chef Ryan Scott


Recently McDonald’s Corporation held a charity event to benefit Ronald McDonald House.  If you are unfamiliar with RMHC, its goal is to provide lodging for the families of sick or terminally ill children, in close proximity to the hospitals housing and caring for their kids.  RMHC provides a safe and “home like” environment for the families facing these challenges to recharge.  It is indisputably a great cause.

Held at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, the premise of the evening was fairly simple.  Using only the ingredients to be found in the kitchen of any standard McDonald’s franchise throughout the country, the Chefs would be asked to turn the ingredients into haute cuisine.  There was a bit of leeway with spices and greens, but not much.  They were supposed to turn a Big Mac into a fine dining experience.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s impossible.  I was initially skeptical, but when I heard that serious Chefs were participating in the event, I decided to attend and try to keep an open mind.  We’ve been bombarded with the message that fast and inexpensive equals bad for us, and to some extent that seems to be true.  Or is it?

Chef Scott talks food

McDonald’s brought in three heavy hitter chefs with varying culinary points of view.  Ryan Scott, Executive Chef of san Francisco’s Market & Rye and former Top Chef contestant, Beverlie Terra, of Chaminade Restaurant and Spa in Santa Cruz and Sophina Uong, Executive Chef of Pican Restaurant in Oakland.  These chefs know their food and they were certainly up for the challenge.

When asked for their culinary Point of View:

Chef Scott: “Don’t think too hard.  Don’t over manipulate an ingredient.  Fennel is fennel.”

Chef Terra: “My point of view has matured! My passion now is not only preparation of food and menus, but using local ingredients to inspire and teach.”

Chef Uong: “We eat with our eyes.  I like to add some color to the plate to keep it interesting.”

Gullah Fish Filet
Chef Sophina Uong
So they came together to make magic and to raise money for this magnificent charity.   McDonald’s had skin in the game — to  change a few minds when it comes to their ingredients.  Battle on.


Each chef prepared an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert, making for a nine-course meal.  Our first course featured several intriguing interpretations of the challenge ingredients, including a beautifully seasoned broth in which sat a savory parmesan “puddin”, a hearty tomato soup with a tiny grilled cheese sandwich on the side, and an exquisite soft poached egg over blueberries, buttered croutons that was gently dressed in a warm bacon vinaigrette.  Each one was unique and all were quite elaborately created.  The idea that we were eating “McDonald’s” seemed implausible when looking at the food being served.

Mickey D's Sugo with Gnocchi
Chef Ryan Scott
Of the main courses, our table seemed to feel that the Gullah fish fillet from Chef Uong was the most successfully “elevated,” though everyone seemed to enjoy every dish quite a bit.  Chef Uong had cleverly removed all the original breading and re-purposed the fillet itself into a delicate slab of light, flaky meat, garnished with a fricasse of fresh mushrooms, and treated it with a delicate sauce of poblano pepper jelly.  But Chef Scott’s fantastic braised sugo and gnocchi was spicy & flavorful, and the miniature meatloaf wrapped in bacon from Chef Terra was likewise delicious.

The desserts were varied, and all were a hit.  Chef Scott provided lovely beignets and a coffee “soda” dipping sauce, Chef Terra gave us a take on an apple tart slathered in caramel, and Chef Uong made her version of a chocolate hazelnut chess pie, which was topped with meringue.  To be completely accurate, I believe there were pastry chefs working alongside the participant chefs, but I do not have their names so cannot iterate them here.


Bacon Wrapped Meat Loaf
Chef Beverlie Terra
When I was first approached to attend this event, my initial response was fairly cynical.  I have to be honest:  I was reluctant to attend.  But when I heard who the participants were and that it would benefit RMHC, I was convinced I should go and try to keep an open mind.  By the time I left, I was, if not a complete convert, significantly convinced that the foodstuffs that McDonald’s serves to its consumer begin as wholesome, fresh, and nutritious ingredients.  Are their french fries highly caloric?  Absolutely.  But are they any worse for the consumer than the cheesy fries I get off my favorite food truck?  I doubt it.

The fact is that too much of any of these things is not good for us.  But they are delicious.  If I’m honest, although I dine often in some of the best restaurants this country has to offer, I can’t call much of what I eat there ‘healthy” either.  (Again, I plead “delicious.”) Proper food intake has always been about balancing intake with the dreaded exercise.  Aside from the caloric offset of regular activity, if you aren’t getting enough exercise, your body is turning to shit.  It’s just a fact.

Baked Apple Tart
Chef Beverlie Terra
If we as a nation are truly concerned about a healthy diet, the over-regulation of highly caloric foodstuffs is no more a solution than hiding the Halloween candy after your kids get home from trick-or-treating.  It is our job to teach our children to enjoy everything in moderation.  Did we really not learn from prohibition?  Taking away something most people desire by legislating their personal habits will always fail.

If we want our children (and our adults) to remain healthy, we should take the energy we put into regulation of foods and put it into ensuring a robust physical education program in every school.  We should be sending our kids outside to play rather than chaining them to a computer.  Instead, we just point at the big guy with his Big Gulp and scapegoat him by marginalizing his eating habits.  There are people who can’t afford the money to shop at Whole Foods nor always the time to prepare a meal.  Single mothers with two jobs.  Families who are barely eating, never mind eating well.  And they need a place to get reasonably priced food.

Beignets & Coffee Soda
Chef Ryan Scott
As a final question, I asked each of the Chefs how the average “Jane” could stock her kitchen with healthy food on a budget that might not stretch to include fine dining choices.  The answer was universal.  Start with the produce.  Let the fresh choices there dictate your meal for the evening, and once you’ve procured your seasonal items, head over to the meat counter and you will find your protein demands less, well, demanding.  Right now one can find beautiful butternut squash, acorn squash, delacotta squash, pears, apples and pomegranates.  Maybe all that’s needed to round out the meal is a pork chop or a chicken breast, instead of that 16 oz Porter House that would have called your name had you been to the butcher before checking out the produce.  It can be done.  I was raised on pasta, pizza and more pasta.  Now my favorite meal is a beet salad and some burrata or goat cheese.  Just sayin’.

So if you do have time to make dinner, take a stroll down the produce aisle first and really check it out.  Make a meal that will give you another ten years with your grandchildren, or that will allow them to live fit, productive and longer lives.  And if you save a few bucks?  Donate it to Ronald McDonald House Charities, so that families whose children have been stricken with illness and facing unimaginable battles can stay by their sides and give them a shot at that same bright future.

Ronald MdDonald House: