For her fast-food fix, Teresa Montaño, executive chef of Otoño, a Spanish-influenced restaurant in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, heads to In-N-Out. Her order? A double-double with a side of fries. "Not only is the food great, but I greatly admire their operation as well," says Montaño, who prefers her burger animals style because of the sweetness of the caramelized onions. "With their tangy special sauce it's perfect, it hits that pleasure spot in my brain!"
For Chef Johanna Hellrigl of Doi Moi in Washington, D.C., fast food is all about the nostalgia. Her favorite menu item is Checkers' Famous Seasoned Fries, making her sentimental about the old days hanging out in her hometown of Palm Beach, Florida throughout high school and early college years. "The fries are well seasoned and feel battered in texture, which results in some seriously crispy fries," she says. These are the go-to comfort meal ideas from some top chefs.
Sauce is boss
"My favorite fast food chain is Arby's," says Terryl Gavre, a San Diego restaurateur who counts Cafe 222 and BANKERS HILL BAR + Restaurant among her properties. "The Arby's Sauce and the Horsey Sauce are my secret indulgence. I always get the Classic Roast Beef Sandwich without cheese. I don't want anything to distract from the meat and sauces. The super soft, steam bun with the salty meat and the sweet and savory sauces…it's a winning combination."
Hold the bread
When he's being carb conscious, Nate Gravina, executive chef of Breckenridge Brewery in Colorado, orders Jimmy John's Gargantuan Unwich (a "sandwich" without bread). "Add some bacon and all the veggies you can cram into that lettuce wrap," says Gravina. "I usually order these when the pantry is empty or I've spent too much time cooking already. These usually last as two meals, and you typically feel a lot better than if you smashed a full sub on a hefty hoagie." On the other side of the coin, these are the foods some chefs loathe.
What's more comforting than a burger? Chef Mike DeCamp of P.S. Steak in Minneapolis is a Shake Shack fan, with his standard order including a Smoke Shack Burger (a double cheeseburger topped with bacon, chopped cherry pepper, and Shack Sauce), a chicken sandwich, cheese friends, and a 50/50 shake (a vanilla-chocolate combo). "At first it was special because we couldn't get Shake Shack in Minnesota, but now that it's here, I love the fact that they source their beef locally," he says. "They have great combinations that make them more interesting than the standard fast food burger place, also that bun!"
West Coast favorite
Among the chefs we interviewed, In-N-Out was the favorite, even for those who strongly prefer to bypass any drive-through. "A lot of fast-food options actually leave me feeling nauseous and guilty about what I had just ate," says Mindy Oh, executive chef of Mora Italiano in Encino, California. "However, my favorite thing right now is the In-N-Out 3x3 protein style (meaning sans bun). I usually don't get out of work until late at night, so my eating options are slim. The 3x3 is extremely satisfying, but I don't feel as guilty when I eat it." Bad news for those on the other side of the Mississippi: this is why In-N-Out won't open up shop on the East Coast.
Sometimes you just can't beat a chicken wing. Chef Jet Tila, cookbook author of 101 Epic Dishes: Recipes That Teach You How to Make the Classics Even More Delicious, shares, "I love Kentucky Fried Chicken's hot-wings, no sauce just dry! Chicken wings are my most favorite food in the world, I could eat them every day and never tire. They have the perfect skin-to-fat-to-meat ratio and my family always celebrated over a bucket of chicken. When we were poor, it was a special occasion food as a kid, so I don't think that feeling has ever left me." Have time to cook for your family? You'll love these recipes for picky eaters from top chefs.
You might not automatically think of Arby's when you're searching for Greek food, but it's the go-to for Jason More, corporate executive chef of Schlotzsky's Austin Eatery®, when he's in a rush. "My guilty pleasure is Arby's Greek Gyro with a side of Seasoned Curly Fries and a Jamocha Shake to wash it down," he says. "I absolutely love the warm gyro meat in that soft pita bread topped with cold shaved lettuce, tomatoes, and red onions slathered with tangy Tzatziki Sauce. It's one of my secret cravings!"
Yes, even professional chefs indulge in McDonald's every so often, and Henry Pariser, executive chef at Goose Island Clybourn Brewhouse based in Chicago, is no exception. His guilty pleasure is a Big Mac with fries and an Oreo McFlurry. "I enjoy this because of the convenience and I like the sweet and salty and hot and cold combo of the fries and McFlurry. I'm usually eating this on my way home after a long shift at Goose Island's Brewhouse. I'll swing through the drive-thru and attempt to eat a Big Mac without making a mess, which is nearly impossible." To recreate the deliciousness of a Big Mac at home, you'll need to know what goes into McDonald's secret sauce.
"I love the Modern Greek Salad with Quinoa at Panera," says Abbie Gellman, MS, RD, CDN. "It is full of healthy plant-based protein from toasted almonds and quinoa, plus fiber and Vitamin K from kale and romaine, and healthy fats from the Kalamata olives. Topped with feta and tossed with Greek dressing, it tastes great and is an easy way to make your day a little more Mediterranean!" While this salad gets the stamp of approval, you'll want to steer clear from these fast foods nutritionist never order.
Ace of Cakes star Chef Duff Goldman heads to Sheetz for his favorite fast food meal. "The two things I love about Sheetz are the bizarrely huge beverage selection and the meatball sub," he raves. "I like the way the sauce melts into the bread and it gets all saucy and doughy."
Sometimes there's simply no rhyme or reason to a fast food order, the heart just wants what it wants. For Yankel Polak, head chef at ButcherBox, that means a stop at Wendy's for no other reason than a couple of beloved menu items after a workout. "For me, it's always going to be the Spicy Chicken Sandwich and Chicken Nuggets from Wendy's," says Polak. I tend to hit the drive-through on the way home from the gym when I'm too beat to cook." Find out the fast-food "facts" that are actually very false.