Not too long ago, chef Dan Coudreaut created dishes ranging from roasted duck to glazed ahi tuna at fine-dining restaurants in New York and Dallas.

But recently, Coudreaut – a top graduate of the Culinary Institute of America – took on one of the oddest food challenges of his career: Creating hors d'oeuvres from core McDonald's ingredients.

During a media event dubbed McGourmet, Coudreaut – executive chef for McDonald's – served a quarter-size toasted canape made from Big Mac ingredients, a shooter glass filled with yogurt, granola and fresh fruit and a bruschetta parmesan cone made with diced hamburger tomatoes.

While these bite-size pieces will never show up on any McDonald's menu, Coudreaut says he created them to “showcase the quality of the base of ingredients” used at the world's largest, and most scrutinized, hamburger chain.

But McDonald's observers say it's no coincidence that the demonstration comes on the heels of the debut of Fast Food Nation , the fictionalized version of the 2001 best selling book that examined the health risks associated with America's zest for fast food. The movie centers on contaminated food found at “Mickey's Fast Food Restaurant” chain, home of “The Big One.”

Richard Adams, a former longtime McDonald's executive who now acts as a consultant to the chain's franchisees, says the company shouldn't worry too much. “The quality of their food is as good or better as what you buy at the grocery store.”

A former chef at the Four Seasons in Dallas, Coudreaut tried to emphasize that point during a recent meeting with Southern California reporters at the chain's City of Industry production plant.

So, you're promoting your quality ingredients today. Can you address when you will go zero trans fat?

Good question. It's top of mind for a lot of people. As far as a timeline for when that will happen, I'm not the best person to talk about it.

But you are working in that direction?

Yes – extremely hard and have been for a number of years. We've been successful in reducing trans fat in some of our chicken products. We're not there yet. We are definitely working towards that.

Why is this process so difficult?

It's crucially important that our French fries, and our products, stay gold standard within the industry.

So the challenge is in the taste.

There's a challenge in a lot of areas [such as] making sure we have enough of this oil. But I know from my perspective, as chef of McDonald's, I want to make sure the taste we built our brand on is not negatively impacted.

Does the release of the Fast Food Nation film put a lot pressure on you because you represent the food of McDonald's?

It doesn't challenge me in particular. I make sure we have great products on our menu. Since Fast Food Nation [came out] and other movies [like that] our guests are voting with their feet. We're serving a million more guests this year than we did last year. I don't think it's relevant. It's a buzz. I focus on what I can control, and make sure our food is relevant to our guests.

I imagine there's a vast difference between working at a five-star restaurant to fast food. Fill us in.

At the Four Seasons, I had countless ingredients [to work with] – here, I don't. [There], I was working with culinary professionals that went to school to be a chef. Here, at McDonald's, I don't have that skill set in the restaurants. So my job, in the front end, has to be buttoned up, and thought through. I have to make sure my recipes are something that [cooks] can execute.

When you took this job, was your directive to come up with healthier menu options? (Coudreaut introduced the Asian, and fruit and walnut salads, the snack wrap and the premium chicken sandwich line.)

It was never a directive to come up with something healthy. That would imply that our menu is not healthy. And that's not the case. My goal is to make sure we go in all directions [with food]. If I develop a salad, I want to make sure it's wonderful. If I create a banana split, I want to make sure the banana split is wonderful.

Can you tell me about one product you developed that failed?

When we looked how we could use the Chicken Select in another form, we put it in a quesadilla and wrapped it. I thought it would be cool, but when we put it front of guests, they said, ‘Eh, not that great.' But when we simply [took] chicken and added ranch dressing, lettuce, cheese and wrapped it, people gravitated to it. (This item, the Snack Wrap, was introduced this year and has been credited by the chain for boosting sales at stores.)

People must ask you constantly, “Why did you scrap a career at the Four Seasons for McDonald's?”

Yes. But when you talk [them] through it, and they see the impact you can have, they are envious at times.

I took the job at McDonald's because I grew up with McDonald's. As a chef, to have impact on 25 million people a day is extremely exciting.

The menu is great as it stands, and if I can make it a little better when I leave, then I'm a winner.

© 2006, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services .