Rethinking Fast Food: Award-Winning Chefs are Making Food for the Masses

Rethinking Fast Food: Award-Winning Chefs are Making Food for the Masses

As a kid, I loved it all: McDonald's, Taco Bell, Carl's Jr., Boston Market, you name it—I wasn’t picky back then, like I am now. Apparently my fellow Millennials and I have all had a similar epiphany: fast food kinda sucks. McDonald's may still dominate the quick service restaurant industry (QSR), aka fast food, but its sales aren’t growing even as it has tried to rebrand itself with “healthier” menu items. The latest generation of diners want real flavor, clean ingredients and sustainable practices—even from a quick burger.

November 5, 2014
As a kid, I loved it all: McDonald's, Taco Bell, Carl's Jr., Boston Market, you name it—I wasn’t picky back then, like I am now. Apparently my fellow Millennials and I have all had a similar epiphany: fast food kinda sucks. McDonald's may still dominate the quick service restaurant industry (QSR), aka fast food, but its sales aren’t growing even as it has tried to rebrand itself with “healthier” menu items. The latest generation of diners want real flavor, clean ingredients and sustainable practices—even from a quick burger.

Fortunately for us, a new crop of award-winning chefs are establishing themselves as leaders in the new era of fast food and fast casual dining that goes way beyond your responsibly-sourced Chipotle burrito. They want to bring tasty, high quality food to the masses—all at an affordable, accessible price point. Dare we call it “second wave”?

Better known for their Michelin stars and James Beard nominations, a pair of West Coast chefs are teaming up to compete directly with the Golden Arches’ quick service model.

Los Angeles’ food truck kingpin Roy Choi and San Francisco’s Michelin-starred Daniel Patterson are developing their first fast food chain Loco’l, which is expected to open in 2015 in San Francisco and then Los Angeles a few months later.

They’re experimenting with ingredients to maintain high quality while keeping costs low, which could involve interesting combinations of grains and beef in a single burger patty.

In an L.A. Times article, Choi explained that it’s all about expanding access to healthy, great tasting food:

"'I went out and spoke at MAD and I basically kind of just told the chef community we need to get more involved instead of just feeding the people who can afford our food,' said Choi. When a restaurant thinks it's busy serving 100 people a night, 'the fact is 100 times that are never going to eat our food.' In an attempt to keep Loco'l accessible, prices will be cheap. Choi is hoping to charge no more than $6 for anything on the menu. 'It's really important that things are 99 cents and $2 and $3 because we can't put ourselves next to KFC or McDonald's or Burger King and have our food be $7,' said Choi."

While Choi and Patterson compete with the QSR industry, other chefs are developing concepts that venture into the fast casual world, which usually offers a more refined experience than a QSR, such as counter service and higher quality foods at a price point that typically ranges from $8 to $10 per meal.

Three-Michelin-starred chef Joshua Skenes' of Saison is working on Fat Noodle, a hand-pulled noodle restaurant that’s slated to open in 2015 in San Francisco. Meanwhile, chef José Andrés is working on his own fast food concept.

Details are still elusive, however in an interview with Vanity Fair in February, Andrés echoed Roy Choi’s sentiment that chefs have a responsibility to feed more than just wealthy patrons:

“I’ve been saying for a while that more and more chefs, we need to be [better at] influencing how to feed the many. We only feed the few. I don’t mean only on hunger issues, which I love to see the food community very involved in, solving the hunger and obesity issues in America and overseas, but I believe there’s an opportunity for chefs to have more of a say in how we’re going to feed the vast majority of this planet. You achieve that through the fast-food restaurants. I guarantee you that in the next 10 to 20 years we are going to see more and more fast-food restaurants lead by chefs.”

In other words, with great power (and talent), comes great responsibility.

-By Sara Bloomberg