The idea for our Big Mac plating feature initially came up during a brainstorming session for The Grid‘s Chefs’ Guide to Toronto issue but it was dropped since it didn’t fit into the “I’ll have what they’re having” theme.
Still, we liked the idea and we saved it for this week’s follow-up issue. The concept: give representatives from four restaurants—Local Kitchen’s Fabio Bondi, Campagnolo’s Craig Harding and Nigel French, The Drake’s Anthony Rose, and Raj and Aravind Kozhikott of Aravind—a Big Mac meal consisting of the burger, fries, a drink and a lot of condiments, and make them transform it into something looks like it came from a five-star restaurant. They could use whatever cooking techniques and equipment at their disposal but they could not add additional ingredients. We were looking for the prettiest dish, not the tastiest.
These four restaurants were chosen because they all have their own style when it comes to plating and their menus are based on whatever’s in season. What better way to throw them a curveball? (They unanimously said this was the strangest request they’ve ever received.)
Photographer Reena Newman and I were going over the schedule the night before last Saturday’s shoot and realized that McDonald’s doesn’t serve Big Macs until 11 a.m. We were supposed to shoot Raj Kozhikott at Aravind (596 Danforth Ave.) at 10 a.m., so I scooted over to a 24-hour McDonald’s near my house around midnight, bought a Big Mac meal (with the special sauce in a separate container) and took the burger apart and stored them in Tupperware so it would last till the next morning.
Everything went smoothly the next day. Raj and his son, Aravind, set the bar high. Honestly, we had no idea how this experiment would turn out and were worried that the chefs would simply make the burger look neater like a tea sandwich.
Next up was chef Craig Harding at Campagnolo (832 Dundas St. W.). There was a Mickey Dee’s a few steps away from his restaurant so I bought three more Big Mac meals and separated everything into containers at Campagnolo, so that I would have everything ready once we get to the last two chefs. (Apologies for making your restaurant smell like grease, Craig.) He and chef Nigel French were good enough sports to eat their concoction—it tasted like cold, wet fries with a slight tang.
Chef Fabio Bondi from Local Kitchen and Wine Bar (1710 Queen St. W.) did a lot of research for this task. He actually conducted some test meals before the shoot and, when we got there, he was ready to plate. Now, he did use sausage casing but I consider it to be more of a tool than an ingredient. (If we were really picky he could have taken the casing off.) The sausage tasted like the patty meat with a hint of smokiness. (He smoked the sausage out back.)
Last stop was The Drake Hotel (1150 Queen St. W). We got there at 3 p.m. and the kitchen was still churning out lunch order, while the front-of-house staff was getting the patio ready for a private event.
We had all the more reason to be impressed when chef Anthony Rose told me that six (!) people worked on his burger birthday-cake concept: himself, chef de cuisine Darren Glew, sous chef Kevin Gilmore, pastry chef Karen Vineberg, pastry sous chef Kara Lackie and from the front of the house, Tyler Wong.
Above, we see how Reena got the shot that ended up in the magazine. What you didn’t see was that the fry candles actually lit up (for a few seconds, anyway) and Anthony brought out a blowtorch to light them. The “cake” tasted like a very sweet version of a Big Mac since the burger was kept intact but was coated in a thick “icing” made of pureed fries mixed with special sauce and cola. My teeth felt like they were ready to fall out when I dipped the cake slice into a reduction sauce made from boiled-down Coke (which actually wasn’t bad—it tasted like the Coke gummy candies).
It was great to see all the chefs playing around and see what they could do with such limitations. If they could create these magnificent-looking meals with fast food, imagine what they could do with actual, you know, fresh ingredients.
Related reading: take a look behind the scenes of this photo shoot