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.”
Porano Pasta, St. Louis
Culinary Credentials: Food & Wine Best New Chef; Food & Wine Innovator of the Year; James Beard winner for “Best Chef: Midwest”
A family trip to Italy inspired Chef Gerard Craft’s first fast-casual concept, Porano Pasta. The concept is designed to translate the hospitality and simple food Craft experienced in Porano, Italy, and that is served at his casual Italian eatery, Pastaria, into a quick-service setting. The menu is build-your-own and features quick-serve rarities such as farro, heritage pork meatballs, Calabrian-spiced organic tofu, and organic pastas.
Craft calls Porano “fast food” versus “fast casual” because he wants to change perceptions.
“I grew up eating fast food as a kid,” he says. “I feel like the food was different then. Roy Rogers was an all-time favorite … and the bacon cheeseburger. I remember them being so awesome. And Tastee-Freez in the summertime. So I have a fondness for fast food.”
Craft says the quick-service concepts from fellow chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson (Loco’l) and Steve Ells (Chipotle) inspired him to push the fast-food boundaries at Porano.
“They are introducing quality ingredients and unique flavors fast and relatively affordable compared to a lot of restaurants,” he says. “I love how Loco’l was working on adding things like rice to hamburger meat to make it more affordable but still healthy.”
With the menu at Porano, Craft is taking a page out of the Ells playbook, using a few simple ingredients to give guests a variety of options.
“This allows us to reduce the labor involved in prepping the menu, which in turn helps us keep the price point at the fast-food level,” he says.
It is that kitchen know-how that puts chefs in a unique position to change fast food, Craft says.
“Chefs understand flavor in a way most corporate CEOs don’t,” he says. “There is a high level of integrity found in great chefs that will help bring a little more honesty and transparency to the fast-food industry. There is a need for good, honest food served quickly, and right now the choices are limited. I want people to have faith in food again.”
Costa Vida, Multi-State
Culinary Credentials: Presidio Golf Course, Zuni Café, Sir Francis Drake Hotel
Clean eating is at the heart of Chef Geoff Alter’s menu at the Mexican fast-casual chain Costa Vida. This makes his job more complicated than the average quick-service chef’s, especially when it comes to purchasing. A key element of his job, in addition to menu development, is sourcing—determining what’s possible, how to get the ingredients, and where the challenges lie. But as a former Sysco employee, Alter has a unique perspective on sourcing healthier, more nutritious food. It’s a numbers game, he says—one that requires strong partners.
“Volume can make purchasing quality ingredients affordable,” Alter says. “But buying the right items at the right yield is the best way to save money.”
To illustrate his point, Alter offers up how antibiotic-free chicken is sourced at Costa Vida. He uses Red Bird Farms chicken, which costs 30 percent more than commodity chicken. But because the product comes cleaned and prepped, Alter estimates he saves up to 10 hours a week in labor. The product also offers a superior yield: 100 percent compared with 40 percent.
“That means that 30 percent cost increase is 5 percent less than using commodity chicken,” Alter says. “I make my decisions based on four qualifications: yield, quality, cost, and health. All are equally weighted to tell me if something is right for Costa Vida.”
Still, even with his background in distribution, Alter acknowledges that serving healthy food in a quick-service setting is not an easy process.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” he says. “Most chefs don’t know what it takes to go GMO-free. You have to take it item by item. You have to source properly and have trust in your vendors. The broad liners react to market trends. They literally have everything because they work with healthcare, schools—places where nutrition and diet matter more than most foodservice.”
Alter suggests operators start by using the best ingredients they can afford.
“The better the ingredient, the less you need to do to it,” he says. “Simple preparations keep out the chemicals and additives. You have to ask yourself, ‘Do we have a menu engineered around the right cooking techniques?’ McDonald’s sourcing standards are high. They are purchasing quality ingredients; it’s how they treat those ingredients that makes the difference.”
Alter’s commitment to serving better fast food does not stop at ingredients. He is equally focused on ensuring guests leave Costa Vida feeling full, but ready to tackle the day.
“I want to leave people feeling energetic after their meal,” he says. “I engineered our menu around how the body digests food. It’s a technique I learned as the chef of a little scuba-diving boat. Pressure can cause indigestion, so I had to figure out how to serve food that wouldn’t give them heartburn. That’s the true definition of customer service: anticipating what your customer needs and providing that before they need it.”