Chefs in fast food are nothing new. Culinary Institute of America grad Steve Ells opened the first Chipotle more than 20 years ago. Tom Colicchio’s ’wichcraft chain is 12 years old.
What’s interesting about the latest crop of chefs to make the move into quick service, though, is their attitude toward the industry they are now a part of. They view the multi-national brands as dated and dying and themselves as revolutionaries. They are determined to change the definition of fast food—one organic, locally sourced, fresh ingredient at a time.
Culinary Credentials: Lutèce, Atlas, Jean-Georges, WD-50, Blackbird, Trenchermen, Cicchetti
When PACKED opens in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood this summer, guests will dine on dumplings made from ingredients sourced from nearby farmers. The menu will be seasonal and the price and experience firmly fast casual. The concept is the vision of Chef Mike Sheerin, a veteran of five-star kitchens and the Chicago food scene, and partner Aaron DiMaria, who brings 20 years of restaurant management experience.
Sheerin has strong opinions about the state of fast food, though he rarely partakes beyond the rare In & Out Burger. It’s too fast, he says, and food quality and service suffer as a result. It is his belief that guests will wait—and pay more—for food that’s fresh, tasty, and nutritious.
“I see fast food going back to a healthier model where ingredients are treated better,” Sheerin says. “We are seeing [the shift already] … decrease in sales with a demand for better-tasting, better-raised and grown products produced by people making a living wage.”
With PACKED, Sheerin intends to upend not only dining expectations, but industry labor practices, too. He wants to redefine what it means to be a fast-food worker by treating employees as budding culinarians rather than as hourly workers.
“We plan to teach and reteach [at PACKED],” Sheerin says. “The goal is slow, steady education for the long play … allowing for internal and personal growth for every single person. It’s the first store. We want to allow people to dream a future and then make it happen.”
Stir Market, Los Angeles
Culinary Credentials: Carnevino, Border Grill, Jaleo
Chef Stacy Rampton grew up surrounded by produce farms in Santa Barbara, California. It’s no surprise, then, that vegetables play a starring role on the menu at Stir Market, the Los Angeles boutique food hall where she is executive chef. Rampton, who honed her grab-and-go sensibilities at Farm Shop before joining Stir Market, serves 15 vegetarian options, including $5 side salads of couscous, kale, and prepared grains.
It is her duty, she says, to educate diners on how eating healthy can be quick and flavorful. “People in general don’t think about a well-balanced diet,” Rampton says. “And then restaurants get lazy with vegetables. Besides salad, what vegetable options does McDonald’s offer?”
But what interests Rampton most about quick service is the opportunity to remain relevant to how Americans eat.
“Fine dining isn’t it anymore,” she says. “It’s not even the money; it’s the time. People want good, quality food that’s fast. That means the industry has to evolve. The majority of places serve fried carbs. There’s no variety. People are getting smarter. It’s important to them to know where their food comes from, where it’s grown, and the farmers who are growing it.”
She adds that while not every brand will change, many of the large chains—including McDonald’s and Wendy’s—have done a good job moving in the right direction.
by CHLOE, New York City
Culinary Credentials: Best-selling author of Chloe’s Kitchen, Chloe’s Vegan Desserts, and Chloe’s Vegan Italian Kitchen
Perhaps no one is better suited to open a vegan fast casual than Chef Chloe Coscarelli. The celebrated vegan chef partnered with ESquared Hospitality (BLT restaurants, Casa Nonna, The Wayfarer, Horchata) to open by CHLOE this summer. The concept’s menu is 100 percent vegan, plant-based, and kosher-certified. It features vegan twists on burgers, pastas, soups, juices, and, yes, even ice cream. The goal is to bring meatless dining to the masses.
It is Coscarelli’s belief that while the industry has evolved in terms of healthy eating, there are still steps to be taken toward being more accommodating to diner preferences.
“The R&D teams and chefs at the multiunit brands need to reset their ideas of what people want to eat,” she says. “Don’t be afraid of vegetable-based dishes. Take out some of the starches. Appealing to different audiences is the best way to turn around the industry. There are lots of diners out there with lots of different tastes. It’s up to chefs to come up with ways to make healthier food hearty and flavorful. It’s our responsibility.”
Key to doing so, Coscarelli says, is adopting sourcing practices that allow for the affordable use of fresh ingredients.
“Fresh food is the inevitable direction of where the industry is headed,” she says. “America as a whole is moving toward that. Fast food has nowhere to go but up in terms of quality and nutrition.”