Last night, a group of food writers and bloggers gathered at a restaurant location in Los Angeles ostensibly to have a five-course meal cooked by Neal Fraser, but he duped them by sourcing all of the ingredients from McDonald's. The chef — who is frequently involved in James Beard Foundation events and has owned and operated several restaurants throughout his career — is currently the chef-owner of LA's 3-star Redbird. According to its website, Redbird serves a menu full of "multi-cultural influences" distilled into "seasonal" plates both large and small. Frasier's other restaurant, the more casual BLD, is inspired by the "desire to serve simple, delicious food made with high-quality, seasonal ingredients." All of these goals failed Fraser last night when, instead, he bought into a suspect marketing campaign dreamed up by the world's biggest fast food corporation. McDonald's recruited Fraser, and though the chef initially turned the offer down, he eventually went along with the fast food giant's corporate messaging and event direction. Fraser was paid an "undisclosed amount" for his services.
Fraser — who appeared on Season 5 of Bravo's Top Chef Masters and once won the porky competition Cochon 555 (which celebrates heritage farms) — has no history of shilling for big brands. The LA Times' restaurant critic Jonathan Gold has characterized Fraser's food as "divine." LA Weekly's food critic Besha Rodell also praised his newest restaurant last year, calling Redbird "a triumph of American luxury."
The chef's guests at last night's dinner were food writers from across Southern California who have each individually propped Fraser up as a chef of some standing. As OC Register notes, the meal was video-taped and recorded, and diners probably signed some kind of release to appear in a future marketing campaign. Fraser lied to his guests, saying that he would be cooking with "experimental" and "fresh" ingredients.
Per OC Register, Fraser promised his guests "nothing sneaky." Meanwhile, local McDonald's operators and managers watched the meal unfold from a "live feed in another room." A table dressed with foraged stems, rustic tableware, and gold flatware gave no hints that the food was from factory farms — not the local farms Fraser supposedly usually uses. The invitation to the event, acquired from an invited guest who did not attend, included no messaging or design indicating McDonald's involvement.
Though the stunt was dreamed up by a group of marketing execs based in SoCal, McDonald's corporate approved the plan, and it's likely that at least some of the funding came from corporate too. The hope, at least from McDonald's perspective, was that the sneaky dinner might "shed new light on McDonald's food." According to OC Register and several Instagram accounts, guests began to guess the scam mid-way through the meal.
The best quote from the night came from Clay Paschen III, president of the McDonald's Operators' Association of Southern California: "Unfortunately the perception is that it (our food) comes through the back door processed. But we cook. We have a kitchen. Starbucks doesn't." (In fact, Starbucks confirms that locations that serve an Evenings menu have kitchens, but the Starbucks dig is a telling one.)
Reached for comment Fraser responded through his publicist: "It was an intriguing experiment. The challenge was the draw. Is it controversial? Sure. But this is also a means to keep the conversation going." Indeed, it summons many questions.
The whole thing is shocking and disturbing for a number of reasons. From an ethical standpoint, McDonald's is one of the country's worst fast food corporations. Here's a primer:
Nutrition, Obesity, and Marketing:
The company has repeatedly engaged in suspect marketing campaigns aimed at children. Notably, last year McDonald's hired a science teacher to tell high school students its food was actually "healthy."
The documentary Super Size Me addressed, definitively, what eating McDonald's on a regular basis can do to a human body. Critics lambasted the film, but it didn't take long for McDonald's to discontinue its Super Sized menu items, thereby admitting some measure of fault.
Ingredient Sourcing and Quality:
Last year, CEO Steve Easterbrook promised not better food quality, but food quality perceived as better. And then the company delivered... toastier sandwich buns and real butter on Egg McMuffins. The company is now talking big talk on cage-free eggs and chicken injected with fewer antibiotics, but it hasn't mentioned anything about antibiotic use in pork or beef products, which make up the bulk of its menu.
McDonald's employs over a million people worldwide, but because it's organized as a parent company to independently operating franchised units, its employees have no right to unionize and therefore no right to demand a fair wage. Many make minimum wage. Movements like Fight for $15 have turned the tide, but McDonald's, out of all fast food corporations, has used its considerable wealth and lobbying power to fight these grassroots efforts at every turn.
Though the OC Register quoted Fraser as using chicken from the same purveyor as McDonald's — Tyson — Fraser clarifies that he does not use Tyson chicken at his restaurants, nor does he source any of his products from the same producers as McDonald's.
Eater Video: The decline of McDonald's