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November 11, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Although fast food might be a welcome convenience for rushed lives, it doesn’t measure up to the satisfying heavyweights in the realm of gourmet food. But a little experimentation and creativity could give fast food the face-lift of its dreams.
Vox challenged Jeremy Brown, executive chef and co-owner of Addison’s and Sophia’s, to cook up a gourmet meal out of fast-food ingredients from a few of America’s favorite drive-throughs. Just before the dinner rush, the kitchen at Sophia’s bustles with the sounds of sizzling frying pans and clanging utensils used to whip up the local restaurant’s Southern European-influenced fare. But in a back corner, working on a shiny countertop laden with cartons and plastic packets from McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken, Brown is creating a different kind of meal.
Armed with whisks, spatulas, spoons, ladles, a chef’s knife and an army of bowls, Brown prepares to turn takeout into fine cuisine, and the restaurant contributes only one or two ingredients to each dish. “I didn’t have a chance to get a chef’s coat,” Brown says and chuckles. Aside from his casual dress, the scene looks like a shot from a cooking competition show.
With a three-course meal in mind, Brown grabs a bowl and gets started on his first dish.
BEFORE: Taco Bell’s Nacho Supreme ($2.19); salsa verde, mild and fire-roasted sauces (free); and pinto beans (99 cents)
AFTER: Pinto bean and corn tortilla soup
Taco Bell’s Nacho Supreme — with cheese sauce and meat, which is optional — joins forces with two orders of pinto beans and packets of salsa verde, mild and fire-roasted sauces in one of Brown’s oversized bowls. He adds a half-cup of the restaurant’s iced tea to water down the thick mixture, crushes the nacho chips, mixes the concoction and throws it on heat to simmer. Later, Brown contributes a dollop of sour cream and a dash of cilantro.
BEFORE: KFC potato wedges ($1.71)
AFTER: Shoestring potatoes in lemon and black pepper aioli
Brown incorporates saved lemons from the iced tea, which was used to make the soup, for lemon and black pepper aioli (a fancy word for mayonnaise), courtesy of KFC’s menu. He finely chops the lemons, peel and all, to give the sauce flavor and tartness and adds packets of mayonnaise, salt and pepper from KFC. The aioli will soon coat the potato wedges that Brown thinly slices.
“I wanted to make something with french fries because that’s an iconic fast food,” Brown says. “I thought, ‘What can I make with a french fry? I can make a thinly sliced shoestring potato aioli. So what goes with that?’ That’s how I built a lot of these items. I just started with one item and backed my way through it.”
BEFORE: KFC original-recipe chicken ($3.75), coleslaw ($1.71)
AFTER: Strawberry barbecue chicken entree
KFC lends its original-recipe chicken to the next dish on Brown’s menu. He fries the chicken breasts straight from the carton and coats them with the contents of three KFC packets of strawberry jam in another mixing bowl. He then tosses an order of KFC’s regular coleslaw together with hot sauce from both Taco Bell and KFC to spice things up.
The seemingly unusual inspiration for the fruit-glazed chicken was just a click away for Brown. “This one came really easily once I looked at their website and realized, ‘Oh, you know what? They do have strawberry jelly,’” he says and laughs.
The slaw takes center stage on a plate beneath the strawberry glazed chicken, with the aioli potatoes placed delicately on top.
BEFORE: McDonald’s pumpkin pie (96 cents), McDonald’s vanilla shake ($1.89), Taco Bell cinnamon twists (89 cents), a scoop of ice cream, caramel drizzle
AFTER: Pumpkin and cinnamon bread pudding
The fast-food joint of choice to satisfy Brown’s sweet tooth is McDonald’s. He mixes the restaurant’s packaged pumpkin pies with one of its vanilla shakes, crumbled Taco Bell cinnamon twists and two eggs to create a custard and bakes it for 45 minutes. To finish off the baked dish, Brown arranges a slice of it on a plate with a scoop of ice cream and caramel drizzle from the restaurant’s stock.
Brown says some of the restaurants he chose were more conducive to inventing menu items than others. “Kentucky Fried Chicken was the easiest to work with because they have more items that are individual,” Brown says. “They’re not together. They’re not in a sandwich. They don’t have sauce all over — they sell individual items of things.”
Despite the challenges, Brown says he’s comfortable with both cutting-edge cuisine and fast-food restaurants. In other words, he’s at home with sea bass as he is with chicken strips.
“I think fast food is just like any other food — you need to take it in moderation,” he says. “I don’t think life is very much fun if you don’t at least enjoy your food every once in a while and have a doughnut or go to Taco Bell. I might do that a bit more than some.”
Brown’s business partner Adam Dushoff stops by the table to inspect the finished product. “I’ve got a true gourmet palette,” Dushoff jokes before taking a bite of the strawberry barbecue chicken. The verdict?
“Yes, I will be ordering that the next time around,” Dushoff says.
Brown says he ended up giving the leftovers to his staff. “The dessert went over really well,” he says. “The chicken entree just disappeared. They couldn’t believe I made it from KFC.”