Four-Star Fast Food

Photos by Jennifer Karady, prop styling by Marie Blomquist

It’s no secret: Our city’s chefs—even the most refined, exacting, highly trained, megalomaniacal four-star kind—are a bunch of fast-food junkies. Whether their not-so-secret vice be corn dogs, chicken fingers, or kulfi pops, they gobble the stuff up, sometimes, as in the case of Daisy May’s Texas-chili fanatic Adam Perry Lang, going so far as to take their downscale obsessions to the street. Often, the confluence of high and low engenders a delicious new breed—Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack burger, say, or in the case of Tom Colicchio’s ’wichcraft, a rarefied grilled cheese. At this point on the New York cuisine continuum, the fast-food field still seems wide open. So we challenged seven of the city’s über-chefs—none of whom has a pushcart fleet or a pretzel wagon of his or her own—to take the cheap-eats plunge. We asked them to invent or reconceive a fast-food item of uncommon deliciousness that they could, theoretically, sell profitably, from some undisclosed location, for under $10. The results were predictably inventive, occasionally deranged, and utterly appetizing. You can’t get any of it, of course, but someday, who knows?

Daniel Boulud, Daniel
Crispy duck fingers with spiced fig dip
Cost: $3.50 Sell for: $10 for five

“Now that my daughter is 14,” says Boulud, “she’s past the chicken-finger stage.” What’s this? Mr. Four Stars allows his offspring to nibble chicken fingers? “Well, we never would get them at McDonald’s,” he says, and besides, “they can be very interesting depending on what type of chicken you use and what you dip them in.” They’re even better if you substitute duck confit for the chicken, Boulud says, as he demonstrates here with this grown-up version of the children’s-menu staple. The duck is mingled with bits of fig, breadcrumbed and deep-fried, then shoved into a Pac-Man-shaped bun that’s run through with a wooden skewer for easy handling. And the dip? It’s fig chutney with a touch of port—which sure beats Special Sauce.

Patricia Yeo, Sapa
Steamed Chinese buns stuffed with duck confit, arugula, and plum sauce
Cost: $1.14 Sell for: $6 for two

Chinatown is teeming with cheap steamed buns but none that get Yeo’s gourmet treatment. Starting with buns made from scratch (“a little tapioca starch makes them really light”), she’d offer variations on a deluxe-filling theme like tea-smoked chicken breast and chicken-leg confit. Yeo might have been raised in Malaysia, but she lives in New York, and her street-food savvy is a blend of both. “I’d serve these from something like a pretzel cart but with a steamer instead of coals,” she says. And rather than cede breakfast business to the doughnut-and-coffee-cart cadre, she’d enter the morning-commute fray with egg foo yong breakfast buns.

Shea Gallante, Cru
Turkey club sous vide
Cost: $2.53 Sell for: $8.25

A secret sandwich aficionado whose pet peeve is “dry, flavorless, plastic-tasting turkey,” Gallante updates the sandwich-shop classic by brining the bird for six hours, cold-smoking it for an hour, then cooking it sous vide (poached in Cryovac), which keeps everything nice and juicy. He substitutes maple-cured pork jowl (also cooked sous vide) for bacon and makes his own mayo, of course, as well as the rest of a line of Cryovaced condiments including pickled ramps, Dijon mustard, and ketchup. As for the all-important construction, it’s a classic triple-decker on grilled homemade onion-Pullman loaf, with lettuce and tomato. “I’m a traditionalist,” he says.

Scott Conant, Alto and L’Impero
Ceci farinata of fennel and smoked paprika-spiced lamb, with lettuce, heirloom tomato, and yogurt “pesto”
Cost: $2.06 Sell for: $6.25

There are wraps, and there are wraps. Scott Conant uses the term loosely—his are actually thin palm-size pancakes made from chickpea flour. To achieve a true “have it your way” effect, in the best fast-food tradition, he’d present the accompaniments on a platter and let his customers choose their own. He’d spoon them on the farinata and wrap it up in parchment paper. The only thing he asks: Eat it with your hands.

Cornelius Gallagher, Oceana
Shaved gazpacho ices
Cost: $1 Sell for: $4

Rather than resort to a paper cup, Gallagher serves his ices in an Eckerton Hill Farm heirloom tomato that’s been halved, piped with avocado coulis, and then festooned with marinated cucumber, watermelon, minced dill, lemon zest, black olive, torn licorice basil, fruity Spanish olive oil, and jalapeño flake salt. “New Yorkers want things fast and fresh and low-fat and full of flavor,” he says, and with the help of a hand-cranked ice grinder and the right mise en place, he’d oblige them—ideally at a stand set up at the Union Square Greenmarket.

Marcus Samuelsson, Aquavit
Swedish pancakes with lingonberry whipped cream
Cost: $1.55 Sell for: $4, four pancakes per order

Even without their celebrity-chef provenance, these things would likely go like hotcakes: crêpelike Swedish pancakes, griddled to order and slathered with lingonberry cream. “The best street food is rooted in tradition,” says Samuelsson, who didn’t have to struggle to come up with the idea for Marcus’s House of Pancakes. “In Sweden, where I grew up, yellow-split-pea soup followed by pancakes and sweet punch is the traditional Thursday supper. As a child, you don’t like the soup; you’re doing it for the pancakes.”

Wylie Dufresne, WD-50
Grilled salmon and “tartar tots”
Cost: $2.25 Sell for: $3.75

This very Dufresnian take on fish and chips served straight up in a newspaper cone may rankle more than a few Englishmen, not to mention the Tater Tot contingent, “but I’m not very good at playing to the purists,” he says. The salmon is simply grilled and cut into little cubes, but the tartar tots—deep-fried, panko-crusted little nuggets of hot tartar sauce—pull double duty, serving as both the crispy “chip” element of the dish and the condiment. “It took us four times to get it right,” says Dufresne. “I like it when things are hard.”

Four-Star Fast Food