Gourmet Spins on Fast Food Classics

Words by
Ben McCormack

31st January 2024

Gourmet spins on fast-food classics are taking the UK’s restaurant scene by storm, elevating everything from burgers and fish and chips to fried chicken and curry. 

The closest McDonald’s to Machynlleth in far-west Wales is 18 miles away in Aberystwyth. Unless one has £375 to spend on the tasting menu at Ynyshir, a 10-minute drive out of town. For the two-Michelin-starred restaurant — which also occupies the top spot in the Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards 2023 and is number two in The Good Food Guide’s Top 20 Most Exciting Restaurants — offers, alongside the foie gras, truffle and caviar, chef Gareth Ward’s spin on a Big Mac.

Gourmet Fast Food - Ynyshir
Two-Michelin-starred Ynyshir reimagines the Big Mac alongside its own soft-serve Mach flurry buttermilk ice cream

It is presented, like the real thing, in its own flip-top container, except this one is made out of metal painted the same shade of goth black as the walls of the building. Inside is a spot-on simulacrum of a Maccy D’s — shiny meat topped with pinkish sauce and shredded salad — made from ground aged A5 Japanese beef rib and rump, seasoned with garlic and garnished with pickled shallot, charred gherkin and pickled iceberg lettuce, before being treated to a final spritz of toasted sesame and gherkin pickle spray.

Gourmet Fast Food - Antoine's burger
Antoine's burger took Antoine Alléno, the son of renowned chef Yannick Alléno, three months to perfect

And because white carbs are the enemy of even the most Mr Creosote-like appetite tackling 30 courses, instead of a bun there is a blob of seven-day-proved sourdough-bread mayo. The canapé-sized dish is called That First Bite because Ward says that is the best part of any burger. Love at First Bite might be a better name for a piece of finger-food that delivers melt-in-the-mouth umami cut through with a perfect balance of sweet and sour. It is, without a doubt, the finest Big Mac one will ever eat, the ultimate happy meal. If only, alas, it didn’t come in a Little Mac portion.

For what it’s worth, Ward says that his favourite McDonald’s is not his local in Aberystwyth but the new drive-through at Welshpool, halfway to Shrewsbury. “It’s just absolutely smashing it,” the chef told WalesOnline earlier this year. “Everybody I speak to says Welshpool is, by far, the best McDonald’s in the world.” Ward, however, is far from alone in taking inspiration from the Golden Arches. From fish and chips to fry-ups, curry-house classics to Chinese takeaway staples, the UK’s most critically acclaimed chefs are transforming fast food into fine dining. What’s the appeal?

Gourmet Fast Food - Tom Kitchin
At Kora, Edinburgh, Tom Kitchin uses the finest ingredients to reimagine classic dishes

“Most people can relate to fast food and, most of the time, it’s just really delicious,” says Paul Soczowka, chef de cuisine at Bar Antoine. This is the more casual side of the newly opened Pavyllon at the Four Seasons Hotel on London’s Park Lane from French chef Yannick Alléno, whose Pavillon Ledoyen in Paris is the most Michelin-star-rated establishment in the world. “Chefs like Alléno take simple ideas and elevate them to the next level, making the experience even better,” Soczowka explains. “I think the secret is not to over-complicate things but focus on good-quality ingredients, treat them with the respect they deserve and pack in as much flavour as you can.”

Gourmet Fast Food - Dog and Gun lamb bhuna
The Dog and Gun's lamb bhuna was highlighted recently in the Michelin Guide newsletter

The restaurant is named after Alléno’s son Antoine, who died in a traffic accident in 2022. Dishes include Antoine’s Burger — a deep-fried steamed bun filled with rib of beef, shiso and teriyaki-style sauce that took three months to develop. Then there’s the restaurant’s spin on mac ‘n’ cheese, involving coquillette pasta with ham and aged mimolette cheese, and the vacuum extraction technique for sauces that is Alléno’s trademark. “Our experience, unique techniques and produce knowledge give us a great platform to create something special but accessible to all,” Soczowka says. As long as one can afford £32 for a burger.

Gourmet Fast Food - Kora ham egg and chips
Kora's take on ham, egg and chips

Prefer something more English? Chef Kevin Tickle at Michelin-starred Heft in the Lake District has a dish of “mussels, chip shop curry, scraps” on his 11-course menu. He claims as his inspiration the Chippy Bank in nearby Ulverston, which he says is the best fish and chip shop in the country, so perhaps somewhere to combine on a road trip with the Welshpool McDonald’s.  

Tickle has refined the sauce into a subtle curry mayo that, once tried, dismisses any doubts, he says. “People really react to dishes that invoke memories, so why not make something that tastes great and is a little bit fun?” he says. “Isn’t that what eating should be all about?” Tickle, who used to be the chief forager for Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume, has also hosted a Wednesday evening kebab night at Heft. Doners are made from Cumbrian Herdwick hogget served on handmade flatbread with wild garlic mayonnaise.

Gourmet Fast Food - Paul Soczowka
Paul Soczowka, chef de cuisine at Bar Antoine, the casual alternative to the fine-dining Pavyllon at Park Lane's Four Seasons Hotel

Or how about a full Scottish? At Kora, the Bruntsfield bistro spin-off from Michelin-starred The Kitchin in Leith, Edinburgh chef Tom Kitchin serves up ham, egg and chips. The ham is fall-off-the-bone bacon rib from Shaws Fine Meats in the Scottish Borders and the chips a crispy rustle of perfectly salted Koffmann’s Pommes Frites, the retirement project of Pierre Koffmann. As well as being a mentor to Kitchin, Koffman, the former three-Michelin-starred chef of La Tante Claire in London, also gave Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White their big breaks.

“We use the best pork and the best French fries,” Kitchin says of the inspiration behind the dish. “People might not think of ham and chips in a gourmet sense but it is elevated by the sourcing of incredible ingredients.” But might the real reason the dish is on the menu simply be that anyone who regularly eats in high-end restaurants — whether Michelin inspectors or the chefs on whom they bestow their stars — secretly prefers eating this sort of food than a tasting menu of foams, jellies and jus?

Gourmet Fast Food - Heft dish
Mussels, chip shop curry and scraps is part of the 11-course menu at Heft

A recent Michelin Guide newsletter highlighting inspectors’ dishes of the month drew attention to the lamb bhuna served at The Dog and Gun, a one-Michelin-starred gastropub in Skelton, near Penrith in Cumbria. The ingredients, of course, are top-notch: meat from Pringle House Farm in the village, crispy puffed rice, a spice mix made in house and, according to Michelin, “fragrance and freshness” from coriander. Ben Queen-Fryer, the pub’s chef and owner, admits to being “pleasantly surprised” by Michelin’s compliment. “It’s a nice-tasting curry, but to be honest it’s not terribly complex and it’s not especially refined on the plate, either.”

Gourmet Fast Food - Fried Chicken
For Akito Greenland's one-night-only KFC takeover, the Japanese TikTok chef prepared a specially curated menu

Still, reinventing classic takeaway dishes could be a smart way to gain Michelin’s attention. The Parakeet is a new gastropub in Kentish Town, north London, with two alumni of one-star Brat — chef Ben Allen and sous chef Ed Jennings — at the stoves. Since The Parakeet opened in March, the Insta-sensation prawn toast served in the bar has established itself as the signature dish. “We use an oil made from prawn heads to give it the intensely prawn flavour, and a prawn mousse with big chunks of prawn for an extra bit of luxury than the standard prawn toast,” Allen explains. “We serve it with a small bowl of roasted red pepper sauce, replacing the traditional sweet and sour but hopefully hitting the same notes.”

Gourmet Fast Food - Morleys
Fried chicken chain Morley's held a one-month summer residency at The Standard hotel, with dishes including chicken drumsticks with caviar

Nor is this a one-way flow of inspiration. The biggest names in fast food are repaying the compliment by going gourmet. In August, the Waterloo branch of KFC became a one-night-only pop-up serving a six-course omakase menu — think crispy mini chicken fillet nigiri and KFC karaage — devised by Japanese TikTok chef Akito Greenland. Morley’s, the south London fried chicken chain, held a one-month summer residency at fashion-favourite The Standard hotel opposite King’s Cross, a collaboration with Heinz sauces. Dishes included drumsticks topped with caviar or dunked in truffle mayonnaise. Caviar is also on the menu at It’s Bagels!, a new Primrose Hill takeout opened by NYC photographer Dan Martensen where the smoked-fish fillings extend to sturgeon eggs as well as lox and haddock.

Gourmet Fast Food - The Parakeet prawn toast
The Parakeet's prawn toast became an Insta-sensation

Perhaps all this proves that the UK’s food culture has matured enough to be honest about what Brits enjoy eating the most: a cheekily self-deprecating, denim-and-diamonds approach to cooking where the finest ingredients get down and dirty. “Everyone’s had a curry, or fish and chips, or a Big Mac,” says Queen-Fryer. “There’s nostalgia there for diners for the time before they started going to smart restaurants, when fast food was the best thing they’d ever tasted. I don’t want people coming here to kneel at the altar of fine food. The curry is a nod that customers can enjoy themselves and not take things too seriously.”

A Big Mac cooked by a Michelin-starred chef? I’m lovin’ it. 

Gourmet Fast Food - Heft seating area

Photography by Phil Rigby

Heft, the beautiful Lake District restaurant, is housed in a 17th-century inn
Gourmet Fast Food - Ben Allen
Ben Allen, chef at celebrated gastropub, The Parakeet
Gourmet Fast Food - It's Bagels!
It's Bagels! brings gourmet New York-style bagels to London