Catriona Noble goes through the menu with Miriam Steffens.
Ask Catriona Noble about the first thing she learnt serving fries at a local McDonald's restaurant at the age of 14, and she will give you the rundown on how to make a cheeseburger: ''Mustard, ketchup, onions, pickles, cheese, meat - you build it upside down on the bun.''
Ian, a young crew trainer on whom she developed a quiet crush, wrote down the recipes for every burger on a scrap of paper towel - ''and I cherished that piece of paper towel for a long time.''
Twenty-seven years on, the cheeseburger is still her favourite on the menu. But much has changed since she flipped burgers in Northmead for $1.77 an hour.
Today, having risen through the ranks, the 41-year-old runs McDonald's Australia, a $3.5 billion business with 830 owned and franchised restaurants. She is one of five female members of the Business Council of Australia and last year was added to the nation's Who's Who.
Maccas isn't quite the same either. Facing a public backlash over its role in the nation's obesity epidemic, the fast food giant has been forced to overhaul its image, making healthier salads and snacks, serving cafe lattes in McCafes and turning the brightly coloured outlets into more modern family restaurants. Noble has been credited as one of the key architects of that revamp. ''The momentum wasn't there any more,'' she says. ''We knew we had to change.''
A McDonald's ''lifer'', who has never worked for another company and even met her husband, Simon, working night shifts under the Golden Arches, Noble quit her commerce and law studies at Macquarie University in 1989 to become the youngest female restaurant manager in the company's history. Aged 19, she ran a restaurant opposite the McDonald's head office in Thornleigh with $4 million in turnover and 100 staff.
Senior management soon took notice. The late McDonald's boss, Charlie Bell, and his successor Guy Russo - today head of Kmart Australia - became mentors.
Russo has fond memories of Noble running the Thornleigh store and praises her leadership in turning its fortunes around while contending with 300 ''experts'' at HQ across the road. Many executives, including then-managing director Bell, had a clear sight of the restaurant's drive-through lane from their desks.
''I can always remember Charlie yelling out before Catriona's arrival, 'That Drive-Thru is not moving again!''' he tells the Herald. ''Then one and all would walk across the road to offer a little free assistance. Well, this never occurred under Catriona's watch.''
Bell, who died of cancer in 2005, may well have been reminded of his own career, having started his rise to the top of McDonald's worldwide as a 15-year-old flipping burgers in suburban Sydney. A gregarious manager, Bell would face a reporter slurping a thickshake; Noble sips mineral water as she reminisces about lessons learnt.
Bell's catchcry of ''Fat and Happy'' is untenable in today's nutrition debate yet Noble recalls his customer focus and his mantra of ''life is not a dress rehearsal, you've got to go for it and … take opportunities that come your way.''
She credits Russo, who ran the Australian business from 1999 to 2005, with giving women a fair go. Today, women make up half of the top management team at McDonald's Australia.
Noble dismisses questions as to whether her gender helped her to the top. Having just read John Howard's autobiography, she identifies strongly with his persistence, and cites her willingness to step up and accept jobs in the company that others turned down. Yet she regards fostering female talent as important and is mentoring Accenture executive Cara Morton in a Business Council project.
Noble has had to handle headwinds such as the introduction of the GST and the public relations fallout from the hit documentary Super Size Me, in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock become ill eating nothing but McDonald's for 30 days.
She says the dip in consumer confidence and a string of natural disasters in Australia meant a ''really challenging start to the year''. McDonald's is still increasing sales but ''certainly it's not the momentum'' of double-digit growth a few years ago.
The company posted a $364 million profit in 2009 and is yet to disclose last year's figures. It claims about 40 per cent of Australia's $9 billion quick-service restaurant industry, with plans to open 40 new stores this year and to have 1000 outlets in three years.
Noble concedes that even after the image overhaul beyond burgers and fries, some Australians will never eat at McDonald's. A large part of the population might not admit it ''but they come,'' she says.
Among the fast food giant's 1.5 million customers daily, about 40 per cent are what the company calls ''non-preferers'' - people with a neutral or even negative feeling about the brand. Converting these into Golden Arches loyalists is one of her challenges.
Asked whether Maccas has done enough to address nutrition concerns, she acknowledges there is yet a way to go. ''I still think that we need to find ways to evolve our core menu where you don't have to sacrifice taste for health,'' she says, revealing plans to develop light versions of staples such as the Big Mac in coming years.
The company is also experimenting with healthier cooking techniques such as meat that is oven-baked rather than fried.
Other growth strategies include online. Australia is likely to become a lead country for McDonald's worldwide to trial mobile ordering in the next 12 months, she says.
Such projects - and the likes of its McCafes rollout, premium burgers and restaurant redesigns - have turned Australia into a trailblazer for McDonald's globally. With France, it is regularly singled out by the US management as among the most innovative markets, leading the way for McDonald's world.
With that reputation, does Noble seek to follow Charlie Bell to the very top of the food chain and become the second non-American to run the fast-food empire?
''Charlie was really larger than life. Yes, we have some common career experiences but I would never try to model myself on Charlie,'' she says.
But does she see herself in the global chief's chair one day? ''That's a big call. I can't answer that one. I would not rule it out, but yeah … that would be a big call.''
To others, it's not such a stretch. Asked whether Noble has it in her to head the burger empire one day, Russo replies: ''Of course.'' And Marty O'Halloran, who has dealt with Noble over the past years as head of advertising agency, DDB, regards her as ''one of the rising stars through the international business in the future''.
Noble says she will have to make a ''difficult decision'' in the next few years whether to move with McDonald's overseas or look at another career locally, taking into account the needs of her family - daughter Zoe, son Oliver, and husband Simon, who runs their Mosman household.
If her past is any guide, she will remain with McDonald's. ''I have had plenty of reasons to stay and never a good enough reason to go,'' she says.
The ketchup certainly runs in the Noble veins - her children are making plans for when they are 14 and can start as kitchen hands.