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Impostor Pizza Hut, KFC and McDonald’s: Hollywood Is Remaking Your Fast Food Memories

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The air smelled of yeast and cheese and weed, and though what I had in front of me looked like a personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut, it was in fact a more expensive dupe.

Some of the original pizza’s flaws had been airbrushed and overwritten, as in a favorite childhood memory. No veins of raw dough, no discouraging sweat of vegetable oil.

The best qualities of the original were exaggerated in a buttery, gold-washed bottom and a fine, crackly edge, draped with a light brown confetti of cheese. The puff and fluff of the dough were doubled, bubbly and weightless.

What’s hard to explain is why this pizza — this impostor pizza — felt more like a Pizza Hut pizza than the source material.

The chef Tim Hollingsworth made it for what he called “Pizza Haute,” one of the meticulous themed dinners he cooks at Chain in Los Angeles, a regular pop-up that considers American fast food with an almost scholarly attention, exalting the genre with rigorous cooking and presentation.

Chain doesn’t specialize in the forensic trompe l’oeils of fine dining — those baroque lemon-flavored desserts made to look like real lemons until you cut into them, revealing layers of cream and cake. No, this is pizza disguised as, well, also pizza.

It’s a different kind of illusion: a restaurant that isn’t really a restaurant, selling fast food that isn’t really fast food? And it sent me — a person who isn’t really a person? — into a spiral. Was Chain celebratory and nostalgic or cynical and manipulative? Was it a marketing stunt, a performance piece or a loving rewrite of our culinary vernacular? Was it an indulgent dip into the past or a glimpse into the future?

Chain’s menus change, sometimes mashing together brands into a super-lineup. This particular set meal was $75 a person, which got you cocktails in red Solo cups, plenty and possibly even unlimited wine, a relic of a salad bar and an ice cream station stocked with actual blocks of Hunka Chunka PB Fudge and Butter Crunch from Friendly’s, flown in from the East Coast.

The actor B.J. Novak dreamed up Chain as a cheffy homage to chain foods. It first popped up in parking lots and alleys in 2020, and was later run out of a house in West Hollywood. In its earliest days, Chain might have seemed like a direct response to the darkness of the pandemic, anticipating the regression of taste that tends to follow very bad news — that reliable surge in orders for buttered noodles, chicken tenders, macaroni and cheese, ice cream sundaes.

Another way to look at it was Hollywood solving for the risk of the restaurant business, getting a talented chef to adapt existing culinary I.P. — the McRib, the Crunchwrap Supreme, the Bacon King — in the way a director might work a film around Barbie.

In January, Chain and its magnificent collection of vintage fast-food tchotchkes moved to a larger space in Virgil Village, where it remains one of the city’s hardest tables to land. (Chain has hosted about 100 sold-out events since it started, and the waiting list, which you join by request via text message, is 25,000 names long.)

“We don’t like to think of ourselves as a restaurant,” said Nicholas Kraft, one of Chain’s founders. It’s true that it’s both more ethereal than a restaurant and more established than a pop-up. And though it’s not an Instagram museum, it has the qualities of a fictional corporation’s immersive experience.

Ruth De Jong, a production designer who recently worked on “Nope” and “Oppenheimer,” helped devise the look, jumbling together a vintage Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders vibe with ’90s arcade and video games and slick original design: curvy green lettering and red banquettes, elaborate plastic menus and self-referential poster ads. The effect is both jarring and sumptuous — a fast-food multiverse that seems to have always existed.

Before going, I worried that Chain would feel like a pantomime, mocking the restaurants it referenced and the people who loved them. But there was a warmth to the place, a clear affection for the subject and its hard-wired pleasures. As I waited for the buzzer I’d been handed to flash, telling me the pizzas were ready to pick up, I gripped it too tightly. The anxiety of missing the notification — the thrill when it buzzed! — was all very, very real.

Mr. Hollingsworth used a childhood memory as a reference point for the pizza dinner: the night he was stuck in a Pizza Hut in Houston during a flash flood. But like everyone there, I brought my own set of references. By the end of the night, it felt as if I’d gone to an eccentric billionaire’s party for which he’d painstakingly recreated his last birthday from the summer before his parents’ divorce. The thoroughness. The precision. The sublimation of heartbreak and longing.

Mr. Hollingsworth has a serious fine-dining background — he was chef de cuisine at the French Laundry for years and now runs Otium in Los Angeles. But he resists all fussiness — no miniaturization, no textural transmutation, no construction that would make the dish unrecognizable. This is why it works. The food is chef-driven, technically, but the chef knows how to disappear.

Fancy remakes of fast food aren’t new, but they’re rarely collaborations assisting the company’s own branding efforts. In a mind-bending ouroboros of marketing, Pizza Hut sponsored the pizza dinner at Chain, which doubled as promotion for the company’s steak-topped pizza. The food was an ad — for the food, which was also an ad.

But not all the dishes are sponsored, and so far Chain hasn’t provoked any corporate lawyers. For fun, Mr. Hollingsworth recently served a menu he called “The Comeback Combo,” inspired by beloved, discontinued stuff. It included beef-tallow fries, reminiscent of the ones McDonald’s made until 1990, when the company switched to vegetable oil. He also made a look-alike of the Bell Beefer, a loose-meat sandwich from Taco Bell’s early menus.

A recent Instagram post on Chain’s account asked followers to chime in with the foods they missed — retired, hard to find, coming and going with the shifts in our industrially regulated seasons.

People longed for the 7-Layer Burritos at Taco Bell and the actually fried apple pies from McDonald’s. They missed Popeyes’s Cajun rice, KFC’s popcorn chicken, Wendy’s stuffed pitas and the Olive Garden’s chicken Alfredo pizza.

It was an exercise in audience engagement that surfaced artifacts worth chasing, a look into the past and future. Here was the bottomless breadbasket of ideas, the inexhaustible canon of American chain food, I.P. surviving in a blur of memory and marketing, that could be excavated and remade forever. The nostalgia — the menus it would write, if you let it — was boundless.

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