Anyone who cruises America's fast-food joints can ID the item on which Todd Wilbur is munching. Let's see: two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions on a sesame-seed bun. A Big Mac, right? Guess again, because Wilbur just slapped that puppy together right in his own kitchen. "It's perfect," he says, offering a taste as proof. And somewhere behind a drive-thru window, a red-haired clown is weeping.
Ronald's not going to feel any better when he's reminded that Wilbur published his version of the prized recipe—along with instructions for re-creating Taco Bell's tacos, yoo-hoo chocolate drink and Mrs. Fields cookies—in 1993's Top Secret Recipes, which, along with its two sequels, has sold more than 400,000 copies. Now the master of copycat cuisine is publishing Top Secret Recipes Lite! revealing the makings of Gardenburgers, Snack Well's cookies and a host of other low-fat treats. "Once I have the ingredients," explains Wilbur, "it's just a matter of deciding what to add or remove."
Of course, it's easier when Wilbur, 35, can crib ingredients from the lists printed on packaged foods. Ferreting out restaurant secrets requires repeat trips to chains like Denny's and KFC, where Wilbur takes notes and photos, then packs up leftovers for home inspection. And though the former TV reporter, who has never taken cooking lessons, swears he doesn't peek beyond kitchen doors, he does lift menus when he can.
Still, Wilbur, who lives with his dog Zebu in Las Vegas, isn't a marked man on restaurant row. "Imitation is the purest form of flattery," notes Pizza Hut spokesman Jay Allison. And Wilbur admits his painstaking re-creations of fast food lack one vital element: speed. "Just because you can make a Big Mac at home," he says, "doesn't mean you're not going to the drive-thru."
Somewhere beneath golden arches, a red-haired clown is smiling.
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