Big-name restaurant chefs get in bed with industrial-scale food producers—including Kraft, Nestle, McDonald’s, and Taco Bell—more often than any of us realize.

Take chef Paul Kahan, known for his seasonal and sustainable cooking at his Chicago restaurants Blackbird and The Publican. Kahan’s face (along with the words “Chef’s Pick”) can be found on the back of Lean Cuisine’s “Culinary Collection” frozen dinners. The chef tells The Chicago Reader that he served for two years as a spokesman for the National Pork Board, and last year he participated in a two-day consulting session for McDonald’s.

Kahan has even consulted for Taco Bell. In the early 90s, when Kahan was sous chef at Topolobampo, Taco Bell executives approached Rick Bayless and asked if he’d do some consulting work for them. Bayless wasn’t interested, but Kahan was, and the boss agreed to let him represent his brand.

He tells the Reader that he “flew out to Orange County with two coolers full of sauces and different rices and different kinds of beans, and basically did a presentation for the Taco Bell staff on potential recipes and ingredients for them.” He continues,

I’m not going to say I was directly responsible for the 7-Layer Burrito. But it was kind of right after that that they were like, ‘Whoa, look at all this stuff! We can put it all together in one thing!‘”

High-end restaurant chefs participate in recipe development, brainstorming sessions, focus groups, and product evaluations for giant companies all the time. For example:

  • Rick Bayless endorsed a chicken sandwich for Burger King on national television (and donated his $300,000 fee to charity); Bayless also went on to work with Taco Bell four or five times and has consulted for Nestle.
  • Tony Mantuano helped create dishes like steak tagliata for the Nutrisystem weight loss plan.
  • Ina Pinkney developed recipes and appeared in a commercial for Quaker Oats.

“I feel like any area can be a vehicle to make people eat better,” Kahan tells the Reader. “And so if I can influence the way kids eat in schools or the way housewives eat with Lean Cuisine, it’s a step in the right direction for me.”

Plus the money is awesome. Kahan uses a portion of his pay from consulting for Big Food to pay a chef in the company, Kahan says.

Achatz says he doesn’t do much of this type of work these days, but he says that he’s done it a bunch of times in the past. Achatz tells the Reader,

“When I was at Trio, and even at the beginning of Alinea, it would be really easy to go sit in a creative meeting with developers and come up with a new gum flavor and get paid $5,000. But when you look at it from a big-picture point of view, they’re talking about millions and millions of dollars, or maybe even if they hit the jackpot, a billion- dollar product. And you get $5,000. Nick and I were just like, ‘Well, why don’t we just come up with our own gum flavor and have it produced and market it ourselves and own it?’ So we don’t do too many anymore, for that reason.”

Achatz now has the ability to fund and sit on a revolutionary idea, but before, $5,000 seemed like a pretty sweet deal.

[via The Chicago Reader]