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Cooking up five-star flair at McDonald's

How did a burger joint grow into one of the most famous brands on the planet? CNBC's Carl Quintanilla traveled across the country and journeyed to China  to reveal a side of the McDonald's empire you've never seen before.

No one is surprised to find a top chef working at a five-star restaurant, but when an award-winning chef lands at McDonald’s, eyebrows raise.

Meet Chef Dan Coudreaut, McDonald’s head chef and culinary innovation director.

If you think McDonald’s and culinary innovation don’t go together, you are certainly not alone.

“Why McDonald's? I mean … it's just burgers,” says Coudreaut, better known as Chef Dan, referring to the daily feedback he has been getting since taking the job in 2004.

After graduating at the top of his class from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, Chef Dan served up some of the fanciest dishes at some of the finest restaurants, including the Four Seasons resorts.

Now, he is up against the challenge of impressing 25 million customers with food that won’t raise their cholesterol.

In his three years with the fast-food chain, he has introduced the highly popular chicken wraps and Asian salad, and innovation never stops.

“Would you have ever thought that you'd see orange-glazed chicken with roasted almonds,  edamame and snow peas in a sesame-ginger vinaigrette at McDonald's? That product is on our menu today,” he said.

Now that’s five-star flair in a simple wrap. So is the Big Mac trying to go upscale?

“I don't think so,” McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner said. “We're trying to provide the opportunity for our customers to come to McDonald's and feel good about what they're buying.”

That’s how another new creation from Chef Dan, the snack wrap, quickly became a hit — by riding a healthy dieting trend.

“People are doing what we call grazing, or having five smaller meals,” Chef Dan said. “So the snack wrap just fits in beautifully in that whole arena.”

Whatever the innovation, perceptions of McDonald’s meat-and-potato menu are hard to change.

“I don't think people notice that the fruit and yogurt parfait was introduced; or the triple-thick shakes in different flavor have been introduced; or the salads were introduced,” Chef Dan said.

But upside of working for the most recognized name in food: “I think I'm a hero to a lot of people, like the 5-year-olds and the 7-year-olds.”