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The secret to the modern Big Mac is not just in the special sauce.

Apparently that blend of mayonnaise, sweet pickle relish, yellow mustard and seasonings has nothing on the human touch. Literally.

"You take three fingers and press the middle of this frozen patty, and you lock it to the grill," said Culinary Director, Cargill Protein Stephen Giunta. "With the magic of the three fingers, you get browning, and it tastes better."

Cargill — which supplies McDonald's beef, eggs and other ingredients — has a culinary team dedicated to creating and improving menu items with its customers, which include some of the biggest restaurant and retail chains in the world. Millions of Americans have eaten something Giunta and his team have had a hand in crafting.

But Cargill's customers are the real executive chefs in Giunta's kitchens.

"You don't just come up with a cool idea like a salmon terrine and sell that to McDonald's. You make their food better," Giunta said. "No new ingredients, no new complexities, just make it noticeably better."

Innovation comes from bringing chefs, scientists, sales teams and others together from across the massive Minnetonka-based food and ag firm. This mix of expertise is a key part of Cargill's value to its customers.

The three-finger trick came from a longtime Cargill researcher and development manager who is originally from Argentina, Pablo Calcaterra. Blaine Jenschke— a former Cargill food scientist who wrote a Ph.D. dissertation about the color of meat — discovered how McDonald's could make quarter-pounders fresh instead of frozen.

"I developed the cooking protocols, and he developed the science behind it. We were like Batman and Robin," Giunta said. "That's the beauty of Cargill, where you take the best subject matter experts, and you push them together in a business case. That makes the magic happen."

Chef Stephen Giunta, culinary director for Cargill Protein.
Chef Stephen Giunta, culinary director for Cargill Protein.


Giunta has been with Cargill for more than two decades and is one of just a few dozen certified master chefs in the U.S. He also served in the Reagan White House as the personal chef for the president and first lady.

Chef Pete Geoghegan, the culinary manager for Cargill Protein, has worked alongside Giunta for the past 20 years.

"If you hear a little screaming in the kitchen, we're like an old married couple," Giunta said.

The pair recently hosted a multicourse dinner featuring Cargill ingredients, including salmon, cocoa, oils, salt and steaks from the legendary Four Sixes Ranch where a spinoff of the "Yellowstone" television show takes place.

"We've got some beautiful chickpeas and a tri-colored quinoa salad and added some carrots and some oranges to that, then we have our shrimp on it," Geoghegan said when introducing the first course.

While the culinary team can whip out high cuisine, most of their time is focused on everyday foods and solving problems for Cargill's customers and consumers. The agribusiness had a role in McDonald's "Best Burger" initiative that recently rolled out nationwide.

When partnering with Safeway on the West Coast grocery chain's in-house beef brand years ago, Geoghegan worked through the supply chain to ensure the use of well-treated cattle that would produce a more tender beef.

"If you don't have to chew so hard on your meat, you're going to like it more," he said. "We had a program where you buy a pack of steaks, and if you thought it wasn't tender enough, you brought it back, you got another package of steaks, plus you get your money back."

Geoghegan then turned to Cargill plants making deli meats and finished products, partnering with another part of the company that sells sauces to foodservice customers to create a prime rib sandwich for Safeway stores he called "the best thing ever."

"But it also opened up the opportunity for us to do other marinated meats, corned beef, things like that in the meat department," he said.

The prime rib sandwich was hugely profitable, Giunta said, and it changed Cargill's beef business.

"We started focusing, right then and there, on what was most important to the consumer," he said.

Cargill Proten culinary manager Pete Geoghegan.
Cargill Proten culinary manager Pete Geoghegan.

Kristen Leigh Painter, Star Tribune

The customer-first mentality has led to a partnership with Jollibee, a massive fast-food chain featuring Filipino fare like palabok and fried chicken, which has opened more than 100 restaurants in the U.S. and Canada.

"They're the McDonald's of the Philippines," Giunta said. "They're going to be a strategic customer of ours, which means they get every resource Cargill has."

Cargill is always seeking more of those strategic customers to build a "symbiotic relationship" where both can benefit from growth and innovation, Giunta said.

"Let us in, we'll work on your behalf," he said. "But we want to look at all of what we can do to help you, not just this little narrow lane. And only a few chefs have the commercial mindset that brings that to life."

When it comes to sustainability, Cargill has released numerous low-impact offerings and made pledges to produce food more sustainably. But the customer-first approach doesn't always fit so seamlessly with those goals.

"You're not moving the needle unless the consumer says, 'I'm willing to accept this, and I will pay for it,'" he said. "Let's start there."