McDonald’s New ‘Taste Crafted’ Menu Wants to Be the Chipotle of Burgers

The biggest fast-food restaurant in the world is doing a trial run on some much-needed changes.
Apr 29, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Josh Scherer has written for Epicurious, Thrillist, and Los Angeles magazine. He is constantly covered in corn chip crumbs.

Ever since cooking shows started to break the Food Network flood banks and spill into major broadcast networks, the meaning of the word “chef” has gotten lost in a sea of jaunty one-liners and macro-lens food-porn shots. In French, the word means “leader” or “boss,” but it more specifically refers to anyone who calls the shots in a kitchen. Chefs lead; cooks follow. So not every home cook with a big enough Tumblr following to get his or her own show deserves the obligatory title “celebrity chef”—despite what his or her Twitter byline says.

But there are people who lead and instruct thousands of cooks around the globe and don’t get the titular recognition they deserve: the corporate chefs of fast-food mega chains. Say what you want about the food: They’re still in a test kitchen, developing recipes with meats and grains and vegetables—albeit ones that are designed to be cheap and scalable—that end up in the hands and mouths of millions. In the truest sense of the word, they are chefs.

So why does McDonald’s new “Taste Crafted” menu have the words “Chef-Inspired” plastered all over it? It’s the equivalent of a “gluten-free” label on a bag of beef jerky: technically true, but insulting and stupidly redundant.

At some point, every single item on McDonald’s menu—save the prepackaged apple slices and milk cartons—was “inspired” by a chef. He even has a name: Dan.

Executive Chef Dan Coudreaut has headed up menu development for the fast-food leader since 2004, and McDonald’s parades him around when it suits corporate interests. Want to know what Olympic athletes eat for breakfast to stay so fit? Here’s Chef Dan, live from London with a homemade Egg McMuffin recipe. Eat like your heroes, kids (brought to you by McDonald’s)!

The new “Taste Crafted” menu, which is the scaled-down version of McDonald’s ultra-customizable “Create Your Taste” menu, is supposed to be the Golden Arches’ savior—the assembly line Chipotle copycat that lifts it from the dregs of the fast-food industry. Following a two-year sales slump, McDonald’s announced that it would close up to 700 locations worldwide; recently, diners ranked McD’s the second-worst “limited service” restaurant in America, just beating out Chuck E. Cheese.

The menu gives diners the choice of three buns, three different meats, and three different styles of “chef-inspired” toppings. Craving a bacon clubhouse burger with caramelized onions on a potato roll? Done. Want to go a little healthier and get the grilled chicken with pico and guacamole on an artisan bun? Chef Dan hooked it up with some inspiration on that too. It will debut in select Southern California Golden Arches locations, and the trial run will end in early May.

Ever since former CEO Don Thompson stepped down after a string of historically bad sales periods, incumbent Steve Easterbrook, who made a name for himself by bringing fresher produce and organic milk to McDonald’s locations in the U.K., has been talking about simplifying the menu to eventually phase out preservatives and introduce shorter supply chains. If the “Taste Crafted” menu were to replace the hundreds of frozen drink combinations and flaccid attempts to make new chicken and fish items that are cheaper than beef, Easterbrook’s dream would likely come true.

Chipotle, which McDonald’s was heavily invested in up until 2006, has been able to phase out GMOs and preservatives precisely because of its simplicity. The only burrito filling that’s been added in its 22 years of existence is the vegan sofritas, and CEO Steve Ells has explicitly stated that there are no plans to further expand the menu. Even the steam tables holding the barbacoa and carnitas (or not, as the case may be), arranged assembly line–style, make it easy for service and consistency, and let diners customize their meal in real time. It’s a win-win-win.

But McDonald’s doesn’t seem willing to follow that tried-and-true model just yet. In the same time period that it’s rolling out the new customizable menu, the mega chain has also introduced new menu-jamming items like the Double Filet-o-Fish and Mini McBundt cakes.

It’s going to take more of a commitment to simple ingredients and less of a commitment to trendy words in bold typeface for McDonald’s to try and play ball in Chipotle’s court.