Earlier this week, Redbird chef Neal Fraser gathered a bunch of L.A. food writers and bloggers and Instagrammers for what promised to be “a one-night-only dining experience with one of Los Angeles’ best-known chefs in a secret location.” And that dinner turned out to be one of the most ill-conceived, bizarre marketing stunts of all time. After the dinner was over, it was revealed that McDonald's was behind the dinner, and that Fraser had used McDonald's ingredients to create the meal.
What was this supposed to achieve? To shame a bunch of “Southern California’s most influential 'food insiders,'” (as the invite put it) because they couldn't tell the difference between McDonald's food and gourmet cooking? To prove that Fraser's upscale cooking at his restaurants is basically no different from McDonald's? Did the organizers (who appear to be Orange Palate, a New-York based brand consultant) think these media types would actually come away saying “Gee whiz, I guess McDonald's really is just as good as other food we like and respect!”?
In an OC Register article posted yesterday, they got basically what they were after, a fluffy story full of lines such as: “But, after taking a close look at the McDonald’s ingredients, [Fraser] said he realized much of it was no different than what he kept in his own kitchen at Redbird,” as well as quotes from the president of the McDonald’s Operators’ Association of Southern California about the “cooking” that goes on at McDonald's, and “changing perceptions.”
But what happened inside the dinner, and the impression most of these “food influencers” left with, was not so fluffy and feel-good. No, I wasn't there. But our former Food Editor and current contributor Sarah Bennett was. “I went because I honestly thought it was going to be about Fritzi at the Arts District Brewery,” Bennett, who reports extensively on the beer scene, told us in an email, not discounting the reasons many writers and bloggers attend these types of events (“fuck it, free meal, right?”). But she worries that the OC Register story will leave people with the wrong impression: “I have to say that the OC Register's summation of the event is totally wrong. The food was shit and not even Neal Fraser could save it.” She went on:
The first course was straight pepper and cold avocado in a bowl, which made me decide that Neal was not actually in the kitchen. By the second course I was convinced that there were children cooking this food instead, in which case that drenched bacon ranch salad was kinda sorta cute. (Also suggested at my table was that federal prison inmates were cooking the food from commissary items or that this was all discarded food from our own dumpsters). I left a significant portion of the meat courses on my plate, in particular the chicken-wrapped-in-bacon dish after I realized the chicken had never seen a bone and the bacon had been microwaved. I did not know it was McDonald's, but I did know very early on that this was not food that fit the quality of the golden silverware they were having me eat it with, much less anything that Neal Fraser would ever fuck with at any of his restaurants. I can't attest to what was being said at the other table, but I did not hear one positive comment about the food on my side the entire time (also turns out I was sitting next to a PLACED ACTOR whose only job was to smile as he ate for “reaction shots” and, for the reveal, show me the hidden golden arches on the plates after the last course).
She did have one nice thing to say, kind of: “I can only compliment the dessert, which used berries and granola from the yogurt parfait.” But the overwhelming feeling Bennett came away with, as I'm assuming many others at the dinner did, was a renewed distain for McDonald's, its ingredients and its marketing practices, and a new set of negative feelings about Fraser.
Neal apologized a few times afterward, saying, “Please don't hate me,” but now I kind of do. As a journalist with a genuine interest in his projects, he wasted my time with a fake dinner where he served me shitty food that I didn't eat just so that some McDonald's franchise owner could be like “See? We use real food in our restaurants!” (If metallic tasting salt-beef counts as “real food,” sure.) There wasn't even an announcement of some new line of chef-driven fast food dishes or anything that had anything to actually do with Neal Fraser. I did not feel duped as much by the food as I did by the chef who used his name value to lure all these unsuspecting, eager food bloggers (and a few food media professionals) into some publicity stunt that only makes me never want to eat McDonald's that much more. To add insult to injury, I had to stop at a taco truck on the way home so I could actually eat dinner.
A video of the event, which was being live-streamed to a group of McDonald’s operators in another room, will be released online later this month. But given the above, sometimes you need to be really, really careful about the media attention you wish for.