Rick Tramonto got his start cooking with Dave Thomas at Wendy’s.
“I still know the chili recipe.”
That’s what he told a number of journalists recently at the Institute of Culinary Education as he assembled the chain’s new salads in front of us.
I think it’s a little risky for a fine-dining chef to associate with fast food.
You might remember that another celebrity chef from Chicago, Rick Bayless, was in a national TV ad back in 2003 promoting Burger King’s new and ultimately unsuccessful line of low-fat chicken baguette sandwiches.
BK actually tapped two celebrities to promote those sandwiches, Bayless and Rachel Ray.
I think Ray was an excellent choice, but Bayless seemed like a silly one. He wasn’t yet famous enough outside of the food world for him to impress many Burger King customers, and in the world of food-elitists where I dwell, he was (and still is) a champion of local, seasonal, touchy-feely food from cute farms. He advocated strongly against development of genetically modified organisms (in fact, I’ve never managed to get a call back from him when writing about his forte, Mexican food, but he was on the phone instantly when I was writing about GMOs) and in general was viewed as an opponent of “Big Food.”
Many of those relatively few people who knew Bayless’ reputation at the time were hurt, puzzled or outraged by his appearance in a BK commercial (although, for what it’s worth, from what I understand he did insist on trying the sandwich before promoting it, so that’s something).
Times have changed, lines have blurred, many fine dining chefs are opening burger joints, and Tramonto, if memory serves, has never wrapped himself as tightly in the Slow Food mantle as Bayless has.
Indeed, he said the spirit of quality and training that he got at Wendy’s is part of his DNA.
He also said he met his wife — I assume he meant his ex-wife, celebrity pastry chef Gale Gand — at Wendy’s where she was making sandwiches while he was flipping burgers.
Tramonto looked like he knew his association with Wendy's could be controversial in the food snob world, and he seemed relieved, or at least glad, when I told Wendy’s corporate chef Lori Estrada how much I liked the avocado ranch dressing (it’s true, I did; the pomegranate vinaigrette not so much, but I’m not in to lo-cal dressings).
And although the Rick Bayless-Burger King association was scandalous for about 20 minutes, both Bayless and BK survived quite well, and if I hadn’t just dredged it up again that episode would have been relegated to the dustbin of history.