Sandwiches are Serious Business

The “creator of the sandwich” is said to have requested his meal of sliced meat to simply be tucked between two pieces of bread, so as not to render his playing cards greasy while he played cribbage. Whether or not it is true, John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, had his dining priorities in line with us, almost four centuries later: Create something simple, delicious, sustaining and able to be jammed into my mouth while I’m doing something else. Despite the earl’s impeccable upbringing, exclusive education and social position, the guy knew how to tuck a good piece of meat between two even better pieces of bread. If only he knew where his culinary breakthrough would lead!

By its basic definition, the sandwich is pretty simple: two pieces of bread with some sort of filling. After that, it’s a virtual universe of combinations. Combine this with the annihilation of the traditional breakfast/lunch/dinner times, and it is conceivable to eat sandwiches morning, noon and night, days on end and never get bored by them! Frankly, the sandwich fetish is becoming borderline absurd, unless, of course, you are a restaurant owner. If your range of sandwiches is tuna salad, chicken salad, ham on rye and a club, you and your customers are totally missing the boat and probably a great profit and brand-developing center. Let’s look at some ways sandwiches can help build your image, set your restaurant apart, help the bottom line and drive sales.

How could sandwiches play a role in my restaurant? The days of my grandfather stepping into the deli for a ham on rye and some potato chips have passed. The sandwich is now a statement, an expression of the chef ’s or owner’s bravado and level of culinary passion – a matter of downright serious discussion and thought. It’s no longer good enough to have good ham and rye. The rye needs to be a real sourdough and the ham needs to be hardwood smoked, whole muscle (and it would be a big bonus if the pig had some kind of name). Sandwiches are now engineered by chefs and have become serious business.

For example, a chef wants to make a lobster roll. He or she asks, is the lobster from freshly cooked lobsters? Canned meat? Or frozen? Should I jack it up with a secret blend of 30 spices and herbs, or should I simply toss large chunks in a high-quality mayonnaise, a squeeze of lemon and maybe, just maybe, a little minced celery. Do I use salted butter on a traditional New England-style hot dog roll and cook it on a clean griddle? (Notice that when it comes to replicating a micro-regional sandwiches, it’s sometimes best to observe the accompanying orthodoxy.

Nothing is worse than a bad knockoff.) Well-executed sandwiches can become luxury menu items. While writing this article, I received an email from a customer looking to serve a $25 hamburger in his bar. You can bet your last pickle slice it won’t be a Wimpy burger! Just ask New York City’s Daniel Boulud (foie gras burger), David Chang (bahn mi) and Grant Achatz (lobster roll) who priced their successful sandwich items. Let’s see how gourmet or “chef-wiches” come into play. This needn’t be difficult and the chef can still wear his or her toque high when serving them. The following scenarios are challenges Maines’ customers sent to my test kitchen.

Given: A Grilled Cheese
I created: Grilled Havarti and Pulled Short Rib Sandwich on Sourdough Frame Bread

Given: A Reuben
I created: Local Stout-cured Corned Beef on Pumpernickel with Homemade Mustard and Grilled Vidalias

I created: Heirloom Tomato, Arugula and Crispy Pork Belly Sandwich on Olive Oil Grilled Ciabatta

Notice how each sandwich maintains its original basic ingredients. We’ve just played with the flavor nuances, names and texture. Also notice that the perceived value of each sandwich has been significantly elevated by a couple of “handcrafting” steps, such as making your own mustard, and braising pork belly and short ribs.