It feels like America needs a reminder that fast-food companies are, by and large, terrible. The food is terrible for your health, the corporate structure is terrible for the majority of people who actually work in the industry, and — according to almost every major study done on the topic — the companies’ practices are terrible for the environment. Yet fast food is, at the moment, in the middle of something like a cultural renaissance: Just witness the frenzy that has lately ensued over Szechuan Sauce. McDonald’s managed to transform a tiny pop-culture mention of a long-discontinued product into an actual phenomenon. (There’s even a limited-run podcast.) Chefs, as well, are all too willing to proclaim their love of fast food as if it’s some kind of badge of honor, but the problem with this kind of performative thinking is that it seems like a conscious choice to also ignore fast food’s inherent terribleness.
There are things to like about Ugly Delicious, David Chang’s new Netflix food and travel show. It debunks the myth of “authenticity” that persists in the food world; allows interesting food figures, such as Rosio Sánchez, to tell their own stories in thoughtful, meaningful ways; and mostly allows more room than is typical in food television for its hosts’ and guests’ eccentricities to shine.
But the show has also been criticized for peddling in a boys’-club mentality and food-bro tropes that have started to feel hopelessly outdated. (Chang, for example, says he turned to kitchens because it’s like working with a “band of outsiders” that’s “a form of rebellion and badass.”) Then there’s the winking embrace of fast food. In one segment, Chang happily visits a Domino’s, helps deliver the pizzas, gawks at the efficiency of the Domino’s production line, and talks about his love of the delivery app. “I think the main reason I like Domino’s,” Chang says at one point, “is because I’m being told by the culinary-snob patrol that I can’t like it.”
This is, of course, not the first time Chang — who operates one restaurant, Momofuku Ko, where dinner costs $195 per person — has publicly proclaimed a love of cheap, mass-market food. He’s also not the only chef to use such proclamations as a means of boosting his regular-guy bona fides. Wolfgang Puck and Thomas Keller have talked about their love of In-N-Out, Marco Pierre White likes McDonald’s; Jon Shook and Hugh Acheson like Chick-fil-A; Sang Yoon likes Del Taco; and everyone seems to agree that Popeye’s fried chicken is the country’s best.
For chefs, a public embrace of fast food is a marketing tool; it’s a rejection of a different set of values — those of Chang’s so-called culinary-snob patrol. Chefs who say they like Big Macs also suggest that they are not overly concerned with the preciousness, pretension, and nature of exclusion that’s still inherent in the fine-dining experience. Yes, these chefs operate restaurants where dinner can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, and luxury ingredients like caviar, foie gras, and uni are carefully doled out to the one-percenters of the world. But underneath that apparent façade, these chefs want the world to know that they’re just guys — and this is by and large a phenomenon that applies to male chefs — who eat the same burgers and nuggets as everyone else.
This is not to shame people who eat fast food. It is highly affordable, and there are places in this country where fast-food chains are the only realistic restaurant option. This is also not an effort to condemn the people who enjoy eating at chains. (I’ve written myself that I tend to seek out subpar coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts.) But among chefs — especially chefs with highly visible platforms, who have the power to set the tone of the larger conversation surrounding food — this line of thinking is increasingly problematic. An explicit endorsement of fast-food chains is also an implicit endorsement of the difficulties that plague the industry.
Fast food’s price point and comforting sameness make it feel accessible and democratic, but that comes at the expense of exploitation. The most prominent example is Andy Puzder the former CEO of CKE Restaurants, which operates Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s. It is also a company where workers say they never saw wage increases unless federally mandated, worked with pneumonia and felt that they had to work no matter how ill they were, and more. Once Trump’s first pick for Labor secretary, Puzder got so frustrated that the minimum wage was raising that he decided it would be better just to replace workers with robots, which he gloated “never take a vacation, never show up late.”
A former McDonald’s CEO blamed Fight for 15 when the company announced that it would start installing touchscreens, which also would reduce the need for actual human employees. (Meanwhile, one study found that, had McDonald’s simply raised wages to an acceptable level, the price of a Big Mac would have only increased by about 17 cents.) Even if Popeye’s chicken tastes good — and the consensus opinion is that it does — the people who serve it are still people like Missouri resident Fran Marion, who the Guardian reported last year earned just $9.50 an hour after working 22 years in the industry. (And these examples are just people who serve the food at the restaurants, to say nothing of exploited farmers and individuals who work in horrific conditions at meat-processing plants.)
There is also the depressing fact that workers in the fast-food industry are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment. Restaurants as a whole have more sexual-harassment claims than any other industry, and 40 percent of female fast-food workers say they have experienced sexual harassment. Half of them reported the issues to employers, but many people who work these jobs can’t afford to lose them, so what options do they realistically have? (It’s also worth acknowledging here that the non–chain restaurant world has plenty of problems of its own.)
All of this is, of course, in addition to the greatest-hits list of complaints against the entire fast-food industry that still remain unresolved: that it perpetuates poverty of workers, relies on destructive farming practices, generates scores of waste, and that the actual food is generally, untenably bad for you.
There is one last problem: Chang himself once lamented the rise of the culinary monoculture in the pages of Lucky Peach, writing that a diner can “go to every city and taste the same fucking thing.” It’s difficult to look at restaurant chains — which ultimately aim for both ubiquity and unerring consistency — and say they aren’t chiefly responsible for working to ignore, or even eliminate, the geographic cultural differences that make food such an intriguing way to explore different traditions and values.
It’s not always possible or realistic to live completely in accordance with our own ethical values — and sometimes, you’re on a highway, you need some food, and McDonald’s is the only restaurant in sight. But these are clearly not companies that deserve to be championed or applauded. Something like a Big Mac is a guilty pleasure, but somewhere along the way, we seem to have forgotten that the “guilty” part needs to be emphasized as much, or more than, the “pleasure” part in that equation.