She excelled at school, studied business, then law. But only one tertiary course grabbed the McDonald's boss -at the Hamburger University, writes Mark Dapin.
Catriona Noble, the CEO of McDonald's Australia, picks the pickle out of her burger. I don't know how anyone could do that. It goes against the vibe of the thing.
Moments earlier, we're waiting in line at McDonald's Thornleigh, across the road from the company's Australian headquarters. It's a sprawling, 24-hour burger bar, with a McCafe and a children's playground, and it acts as a kind of de facto staff canteen. There are McDonald's employees on both sides of the counter, kids in uniforms selling value meals to men in suits.
Noble, a pretty, preppy 43-year-old in a Hugo Boss grey shift dress and jacket, asks what I'm going to eat.
A Big Mac and fries, I suppose.
''A medium meal?'' she asks. ''Would you like a Coke Zero with that?''
I search her eyes for a sign of self-parody, but Noble has worked at McDonald's since she was 14, and her reactions are as drilled as an infantryman's. She has been trained to automatically offer the drink - but how did she know I'd want Coke Zero?
''It's our age,'' she says. ''We're Coke Zero drinkers … When we're in our 40s, we can't afford to have empty calories.''
Noble orders a cheeseburger and fries, with extra lettuce and tomato.
We take a table among Asian students and office workers on their laptops, older men dining alone and the two obligatory police officers.
Noble bites into her cheeseburger and grimaces.
''I forgot to take the pickle out,'' she says, and removes it with her fingers.
I can't believe the woman who runs McDonald's takes out the pickle.
''I don't throw it on the wall,'' she says, defensively. ''If we're eating together, my husband would normally have a Big Mac, and I would put it on his Big Mac. And if I'm not with him, or I'm having a salad or something that doesn't have a pickle, he'll order an extra pickle.''
I nibble at my own Big Mac, postponing the moment of delight when the agrodolce explosion of gherkin makes the whole floppy-viscous burger experience worthwhile. I wouldn't eat a Big Mac if it came without a pickle.
''I've worked in McDonald's for 28 years," says Noble, "and I've seen plenty of pickles on plenty of windows. And the problem is, because the pickle goes on top of the onion, the mustard and the ketchup, there's always a smudge of that as well. So you've got waste a paper towel to get that off, then you've got to get another piece, spray it and buff it, because otherwise it leaves a trail."
Noble speaks quickly and smiles a lot, shifting easily between candour and corporatese (she refers to McDonald's' ''regular users'') as if fluent in both English and its opposite. She looks after a huge national organisation: there are about 860 McDonald's outlets in Australia, providing about 90,000 mostly part-time jobs, and corporate profits last year amounted to $260.88 million from $1.54 billion of revenue.
But she was not born with a golden spatula in her mouth. Her father was a technical officer in the Royal Australian Navy, working in the bellies of ships, who left to take up a role at the Department of Defence. Her mother ran a pre-school in Seven Hills West. Noble grew up in Baulkham Hills and attended James Ruse Agricultural High School.
''I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do when I was growing up," she says. "I loved school. I did a lot of extra-curricular activities, but the school being so academically focused as well meant the whole culture and environment was geared around the love of learning. So I never felt this need or desire to just focus on, 'I'm going to be ''x'' '. I just was learning from curiosity, not to be something.''
She was an officer in the cadet corps, the secretary of a Christian youth group, played basketball, football and hockey, and "could quite often get to the state level" at discus, shot-put and cross-country running. And, in her spare time, she also worked at McDonald's in Northmead with a couple of her schoolfriends.
In 1987, when she'd finished her HSC and was saving to go backpacking around Europe, she moved to Australia's first 24-hour McDonald's restaurant, in North Parramatta.
The manager often called to offer her extra shifts, she says, and they were "overnights, so I got paid extra, and he used to give me money for a cab home".
She went travelling overseas and, when she came back, she met the manager again, at a social function. He told her he'd paid for her cab fares out of his own pocket "because I wanted you to keep coming in and doing shifts''.
"I just thought you were wonderful," he said. "Especially when you wore your army cadet's uniform."
Three years later, they married.
But first Noble took two shots at a university degree, while working part-time as a McDonald's restaurant manager. Initially, she enrolled at UTS for a bachelor of business with a major in marketing.
''After I started that, I thought, 'This is terrible - it's not very interesting'," she says, "So I left that course. Then I went and did the economics/law degree at Macquarie, and I'm like, 'Oh God, I can't do this for another five years'. It was so different and so uninspiring compared to when I'd been at school. I pretty quickly thought, 'Actually, I don't want to be a lawyer - I can't do this for five years just to get a degree'.''
She left Macquarie University at 19 to become a restaurant manager at Carlingford. She had begun to think, ''Maybe this is a career - maybe I could be managing director one day''.
Four months later, she was moved to the Thornleigh branch where we're eating now. It's a difficult place to work because, she says, "You get all the people from head office constantly coming in - and giving you feedback.''
She smiles stiffly.
'''You need someone in the dining room more often' … 'The tables aren't being cleaned fast enough' … 'These French fries aren't hot enough' … 'Why don't you get those ceiling vents cleaned?' … 'Your toilet grouting needs more detailed work.'''
Now, she's the one who gives directions to the manager.
After UTS and Macquarie University, Noble attended Hamburger University in Illinois, to learn to become a training consultant by the shores of Lake Ed and Lake Fred. She fast worked her way up the fast food chain's food chain, serving as national training manager then marketing manager. Her husband, Simon, left McDonald's and bought a couple of Video Ezy outlets, then a Howards Storage World, but gave up his business interests to stay at home with their children, Oliver, now 11, and Zoe, 12, when Noble was transferred to Victoria.
From Melbourne, Noble ran McDonald's in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia. When she returned to Sydney, she held various positions including chief operating officer, and joined the board in 2006. She became managing director in 2008 and CEO in 2010, the first woman to head a national McDonald's business in any major market around the world.
Simon still spends his time in their Mosman home but, she says, ''When you go overseas and you have to write down your occupation, he used to write 'househusband', but now he writes 'artist'. He's doing an art course and working on getting together an exhibition of his paintings.''
Noble eats McDonald's on average twice a week "but I don't eat fries twice a week. If I've been slack and not gone to the gym, I'll have a wrap or have a salad".
"I think people sometimes want me to say, 'Oh yes, Big Macs are terrible, but don't worry, we've got salads'," she says. "That's not my opinion at all. I think our whole range of food is very good quality."
McDonald's and other fast-food chains are often held partly responsible for the rise in obesity rates in a country that takes pride in its meat pies and invented the Chiko Roll.
''On the one hand, I do get upset about it," she says, "because, logically, it makes no sense: there are a lot of other things that people are eating a lot more frequently that is probably causing.'' She pauses, "well, maybe … who knows what's really causing obesity?"
(Current scientific thinking leans towards eating too much and not taking enough exercise.)
''Then,'' she says, ''I think, 'Why do we get held up as almost the poster child?' Well, because we are such a strong brand, everyone's familiar with us, and that's a good thing.''
She says McDonald's can't be defensive, and has to become ''part of the solution to obesity'' by offering healthier choices, but insists there's nothing wrong with a McDonald's hamburger.
''There's no hidden ingredients,'' she says. ''The meat is meat. It's really good quality meat. It's got nothing added to it. The bun's a bun. The lettuce is lettuce. There's no scary things in a Big Mac.''
Except the pickle?
''Well, I'm not scared of it,'' she says. ''It's just … It's slimy.''