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HE TOOK his chef's training in College Technique Hotelier de Strasbourg in France, and graduated first in his class despite the fact that he was born in Luxembourg. (Make no mistake about it -- things like that really bother the French.)

He has cooked in deluxe hotels in Europe and the United States, serving everyone from Queen Elizabeth to Cary Grant.

Now he's product development chef for McDonald's Restaurants in the Oak Brook, Ill., corporate headquarters. The fast food chain, we mean. And how does that feel? "My job is a lonely one," says Rene Arend. In town this week to look over local McDonald's outlets, Chef Rene explained that his most important task is to create new menu items.

"I am most proud of Chicken McNuggets and the sauces," he said in a phone interview. "It was a first for McDonald's and has since been imitated by everyone else. "I also introduced the salads and the biscuits. The newest thing is the McChicken Sandwich -- all white meat with a special breading that doesn't absorb grease as it cooks."

What's a nice guy like Chef Rene doing in a fast-food kitchen? Just lucky, he thinks. "I was executive chef in the Whitehall Club in Chicago, and the late Ray Kroc was a member," Arend says. (Kroc was the founder of the McDonald's chain.) "He asked me to work for him, and at first I said, 'I'm a chef, not a hamburger man. What would I do?'

"But people who knew Kroc knew how persistent he was. After 14 years at the Whitehall, I joined McDonald's. I've been with them for 12 1/2 years." And does he get a lot of flak from other chefs? Do his colleagues' remarks embarrass him? Says Chef Rene, "I'm over that. I'm the only chef in the offices, and I must create the best possible products for McDonald's. "I used to teach gourmet cooking at a community college, but after I had a heart attack, my doctor told me that had to stop. I still involve myself with the apprenticeship program of the American Culinary Federation and I still cook for the Ronald McDonald charity.

"I work to improve McDonald's existing products, too." Which led us right to an interesting question: Why is the sodium content of McDonald's food so high? we asked. (Sodium is believed to raise the blood pressure in sensitive individuals, thus paving the way for coronary disease. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C., based consumer organization, says that one McDonald's Big Mac supplies 979 milligrams of sodium and a Quarter Pounder with Cheese supplies 1,220. Total daily consumption of sodium is recommended at between 2,000 and 3,000 mg.) "We have an ongoing program to reduce sodium, and we have already reduced the content of Chicken McNuggets by half a percent," answers Rene Arend. (CSPI 1987 figures say that six McNuggets without sauce provide 512 mg.)

"But of course we never get any publicity about that. The press just keeps accusing us, instead." The chef continues. "All fast foods need a certain shelf life. In fact, that's true not only of fast foods but of practically everything in the grocery store. Though I am not a food technologist (Chef Rene sends the recipes he develops to the company technologists for further development before they go on sale), I believe most of our sodium content comes from the sodium benzoate in the dressings and sauces." Arend says it's important that McDonald's sauces have a shelf life of at least three months. Food safety is vital, he points out. "Not getting people sick is first on the list." He also makes another point: "Saltless food could destroy the business," the chef asserts. "For example, we came out with a grilled chicken sandwich without salt -- the same patty we serve fried -- and the grilled chicken bombed," he says. "People say they want to eat healthy, but we are a business, after all. And we have to accommodate all our customers."

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