Haute McNuggets

Beef bourguignon from a Whopper? Foie gras from a Nathan’s hot dog? Farfalle from a Subway footlong? Meet the magician who can turn fast food into gourmet meals. VIEW OUR GALLERY.

09.29.09 9:24 PM ET

It takes dedication to fly from Portland to New York with 20 chicken crisp burritos, two casita burritos, sweet potato fries, three Burgerville classics, three turkey burgers, and three turkey clubs cooling in his carry-on, but that’s what Erik Trinidad’s food-styling hobby requires. The 34-year-old runs (tagline: “Yeah, it’s still bad for you—but see how good it can look!”), a one-man blog experiment that’s garnered more than 1.2 million visits since launching five months ago, demonstrating how to achieve the ultimate recession-chic food. He’s turned Popeye’s chicken into spicy sushi, Tim Hortons donuts into tiramisu, and Nathan’s hot dogs into faux foie gras, adding a luxurious look to low-brow fare.

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Each week, Trinidad posts a new recipe with instructional photographs. His only rule for himself is that everything in the finished dish must be available at the same fast-food restaurant, with the exception of a small decoration, often organic herbs, which are added “for garnish and a touch of irony.”

“I’m not trying to glorify fast food,” he contends, “It’s all sort of a big joke.” The site pokes fun at gourmands who believe everything has to be fresh and beautiful, and also at fast-food marketing by proving that cheap ingredients can become something else.

Trinidad’s faux food-styling career began when he visited Chinese buffets with his family as a kid, around the time the Japanese Iron Chef show was becoming popular. He and his brother would compete against each other trying to make a fancy dish, arranging shrimp on the rim of a bowl of egg drop soup, or garnishing a piece of sheet cake with extra frosting.

He started the site five months ago after his friends started ribbing him for posting photos of his regular dinners on the Internet. “Some of my friends thought I was too good for fast food,” he says, and an Internet phenomenon was born.

The experiment proves that flavor and appearance don’t always go together. For all its flair, the food doesn’t really taste any different than the original fast food, Trinidad says, although dishes that use a Coke reduction obviously taste sweeter. He used such a reduction, combined with chopped steak to create a faux curry sauce for a bento box made from Jack in the Box ingredients. While it didn’t taste like curry, he says, “It didn’t taste disgusting, which is surprising.” The resulting dish is the prettiest he’s made, he says.

Through the Fancy Fast Food experiment, Trinidad has become a connoisseur of the different fast-food chains. Beef from different chains evidently tastes differently. “It’s weird,” he says. And while the farfalle he fashioned from a Subway footlong didn’t taste like its original components, it had the distinct smell of Subway.

So far, his favorite dish to try has been the Tacobellini, ravioli made from two Taco Bell Burrito Supremes, although admittedly, he says, “anything that is fast-food Mexican sort of tastes the same” as the original. So far, the only dish to taste like more than the sum of its parts was corn chowder made entirely from ingredients purchased at KFC. While he tries to taste everything he makes, many of his dishes rely on “the most disgusting thing you could ever do to french fries,” which is to blend them and make them into mashed potatoes. He stopped tasting those long ago.

Although Trinidad does accept submissions from the general public, he’s only published one, a Wendy’s Napoleon from Adrian Fiorino in Toronto, who is already in the food-play business over at He rejected a McDonald’s burger enhanced with sprouts and arugula because it broke the rule about foreign ingredients.

Now, with a book deal in the works, his project has become more of an obligation, and with more than 20 recipes created since May, he’s been forced to get more creative and use regional fast-food restaurants. Luckily, Trinidad has an all-you-can-jet pass from Jet Blue, which he’s using “as an excuse to get regional fast food and bring it home.” In the future, readers can look forward to ravioli made from Burgerville sweet potato fries carted back in his carry-on from Portland and penne made from crispy-shelled burritos from the West Coast chain Taco Time. “And then there will be In-N-Out this weekend because I’m going to Vegas,” he says.

Lizzie Stark is a freelance journalist who has written for the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Daily Beast. She also edits the lit-mag Fringe and is at work on a narrative nonfiction book about Live Action Role Play, or LARP.