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Inside the Mind of a Culinary Mad Scientist

Posted by

Jun 17, 2014

In the beginning, stuffed crust pizza was not beautiful.

“I did the first prototype in the lab and it looked like a Schwinn bike tire,” says Tom Ryan, the flavor chemist who invented it. “It was ugly as hell.”

But he was on to something. Years of research had shown him two things: People always like more cheese on their pizza, and most people don’t eat the crust. (He calls the leftover crust “pizza bones,” because it usually goes to the dog.)
Filling the crust with a ribbon of cheese was exactly what people wanted, even if they didn’t know it.

When Ryan finally presented a stuffed crust pizza to a focus group, one man looked at him and said, “My dog is going to hate you.” He knew he had a winner.

He would go on to create the McDonald’s McGriddle, another one of the most popular new fast foods of recent decades. Gourmet Magazine named him one of the top 25 food entrepreneurs of the last quarter century. Now he’s the founder and chief concept officer at Smashburger.

In this week’s episode of The Sporkful, Tom Ryan talks about how he came up with these innovations and how he eats them, and he explains the science of burger smashing. (Hint: It involves something called the Maillard Reaction.)

As to the health concerns over some of his most iconic creations, Ryan says, “I think consumers are sophisticated, I think they’re informed, I think everything should be done in moderation.” But a billion and a half dollars in sales shows that “there was an unmet consumer demand for whatever itch that scratched.”

So knowing what he knows now about obesity, does he have any regrets?

“It would be like regretting my role as a winemaker because of alcoholism. I didn’t design it for people to abuse, I designed it because people really enjoy it.”

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Photo: Flickr CC / Adam Kuban

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