It’s not every day that you can convince a celebrity chef and owner of multiple highly rated restaurants to grab a meal with you at McDonald’s. But that’s just what TIME did when we heard about the fast food chain’s new Artisan Chicken Sandwich.
The sandwich offering, unveiled this week, is a far cry from the days when the company marketed simplicity in the form of “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.” But is it really an upgrade? We asked celebrity chef Scott Conant to test it out and assess the “artisan” claim.
Conant, who attended the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, says he hasn’t eaten at McDonald’s in years. “What happened to the yellow and red?” he asks as he looks around at the restaurant’s modern decor.
He arrives at a New York City McDonald’s after a meeting assessing potential items for his own restaurant. “What a funny contrast,” he says. A main course at his restaurant Scarpetta in Los Angeles, Miami, New York or Las Vegas can easily set you back $35. The McDonald’s sandwich costs $5.22 with tax.
When the Artisan Chicken Sandwich arrives, the chef approaches it much like he might judge a contestant’s concoction on the television show Chopped, on which he’s a judge. He opens the sandwich and makes a quick appraisal of each ingredient: chicken, tomato, lettuce and a vinaigrette on a roll. He takes a bite and whips out his phone.
“Artisan,” he says, reading from the screen. “‘A person or company that makes a high-quality or distinctive production in small quantities, usually by hand or using traditional methods.’ So, by definition, I’m pretty sure it’s not artisan.”
Conant takes the bread and smells it. “Chemicals?” he says with a bit of a scrunched face.
“I think of the artisan who spent 50 years of his life in the bakery kneading dough and has arthritis in his hands ,” he says. “How do you think he feels about calling the product ‘artisan’?”
The rest of the sandwich is mostly unremarkable to Conant. The lettuce is wilted, but that’s a normal byproduct of the heat applied to it, he says. “It’s a real piece of chicken,” he says when prompted about the quality of the sandwich.
He puts it down after a bite, and a generous thought strikes him: “It’s a business,” he says. “I have a huge amount of respect for growth like that. I just can’t do that.”