Can Homemade Candy Bars Change the Way We Think About Junk Food?

These burger-and-candy-loving chefs are trying to cook away convenience food’s bad rep.

Cool Ranch Gordita with braised beef cheek and smoked pumpkin crema. (Photo: Josh Scherer)

Nov 19, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Josh Scherer has written for Epicurious, Thrillist, and Los Angeles magazine. He is constantly covered in corn chip crumbs.

Some diners were confused, some were intrigued, some were indifferent—but no one was certain about why there was a tiny Almond Joy, still in its electric-blue packaging, sitting at every place setting.

The 10 of us sharing the picnic-style table made hesitant eye contact as we popped the tiny candies into our mouths. The sickly sweet milk chocolate shell was replaced with an organic, dark chocolate equivalent. The traditional high-fructose corn syrup–soaked coconut was swapped for a lemongrass-and-ginger-studded coconut milk rice pudding.

The couple seated next to me started giggling at the cheeky audacity of this amuse-bouche. A woman at the other end of the table proclaimed her childhood love for Almond Joys. It was the kind of moment that chefs Mark O’Leary and Samuel Monsour want to capture at their dinners. By using organic and locally sourced ingredients to create fun takes on childhood classics, they’re subverting the status quo of junk food in America.

(Photo: Josh Scherer)

O’Leary puts their message simply: “One thing that we’re trying to say is you can still have super-tasty, grimy, old-school food, but you can make it thoughtfully.”

Their pop-up restaurant series, "The Future of Junk Food," taps into the emotional attachment that people have with their comfort foods but presents them without the accompanying detriment of GMOs, preservatives, and chemicals with names better suited for spelling bees than food labels. It’s convenience-store flavor with farmers market ingredients.

On a Saturday night in October, a mob of hipster foodies, Angeleno socialites, and local food writers queued up outside Huckleberry Café for a 7 p.m. dinner. This was the fifth installment of their six-part, nationwide pop-up series: a seven-course junk-food feast featuring contributions from Top Chef alum Marcel Vigneron and former Food & Wine Best New Chef Jeremy Fox.

As the diners shuffled through the door, some unsubtly jockeying for position, they were met by a server doling out aperitifs and fistfuls of orange crayons. Diners were confused until they found the word search printed on the paper menus at each table. I never found soy lecithin, but Monsanto jumped off the page immediately.

When the plates started flying out of the kitchen, O’Leary and Monsour appeared center stage to explain why they were doing this thing in the first place. Their tones waxed from sincere to playful and back to sincere—it was equal parts emotional appeal and good-humored party jokes.

“We both started to realize that you could still have that satisfaction of eating total crap, but you can make it with good ingredients that are sourced thoughtfully,” O’Leary told diners, laying out their junk-food manifesto. “So you can still kind of have your cake and eat it too. You just have to put a little more effort in.”

It’s a populist tone—and taste—that the dinners have picked up along the way. The first one, which took place in Boston in March, featured an uni-and-crab Filet-O-Fish-style sandwich, a Campari-and-foie-gras Handi-Snack, and a chicken-liver Snickers bar. It was more about the mash-up than about celebrating the pleasure of lowbrow snacks—and agitating for a less chemical-laden future of junk food.

“We were originally going to use things like foie gras, truffles, uni, caviar, etcetera,” Monsour told me over the phone a few days after the dinner. “We were going to go really high-end here, but we’ve changed that. People are seeing sustainable food and the farm-to-fork movement, and they’re saying, ‘You know what, that’s not for me. I don’t like those foods; I can’t afford those foods; that’s white tablecloth; that’s high-end; I’m a blue-collar person, and that’s not at all what I crave.’ ”

It’s an approach that resonates with those on both sides of the kitchen door. Throughout the dinner, as each dish was being served, the chefs stood in front of the diners and explained their personal relationship with junk food. Monsour says he was surprised by the emotional connection this fine-dining-credentialed crowd made with the dinner’s dive-y roots.

“To see guys like Jeremy Fox say from the heart, ‘Hey, when I was lucky, my mom would make me a bologna sandwich, and when I was super lucky, it had mayonnaise and cheese on it’ is something really special,” he told me.

Chef Fox’s bologna sandwich, which combined a fat slice of homemade mortadella with focaccia, whole grain mustard, and pickled vegetables, was the single best bite of the night. It was equal parts nostalgia and refinement.

Most of the other dishes embodied that spirit too. O’Leary and Monsour served a Cool Ranch Gordita with braised beef cheek and smoked pumpkin crema that captured the intimate familiarity of Doritos but had the complexity and tact of any fine dining dish.

So what exactly is in store for the future of The Future of Junk Food? Even the chefs don’t know. Like Monsour said, “We’re flying by the seat of our pants every night and just trying to make every dinner better than the last one.” But one thing is clear: They’re engaging with people on a sincere level and getting them to think about responsible eating from a different perspective.

Effecting measurable change in the sustainability movement would mean reversing decades of ingrained consumer habits and restructuring agriculture subsidies, which is a task that The Future of Junk Food is obviously unequipped to take on. But O’Leary and Monsour see themselves as just one tool in solving a problem that might already be on its way.

Monsour thinks we’re seeing the effects of changing consumer habits right now. “I just bought a bag of Tostitos two days ago, and it was like three ingredients: organic corn—non-GMO organic corn—sea salt, and sunflower oil. So the fact that Frito-Lay nailed it down to only three ingredients means they know there’s a demand in the marketplace for it. This gives me hope that what we’re doing has matter and substance to it.”