In foodservice menu development, whatever the question, flavor seems to be the answer. This isn’t new, but the equation that makes up that flavor is definitely more complex today. Pushing that complexity is a yearning for bolder, better, bigger. Palates have evolved. Diners are more savvy. Menus are more competitive. Influence is everywhere. It’s played out again and again—in the better burger trend, the fried chicken trend, the premium pizza trend, and on and on. Flavor stories need to weave thicker plots, more supporting characters, memorable themes. Sandwiches are no exception.
We’ve seen the evolution of flavor in sandwich builds over the last five years or so. Just like in burgers, all of the elements of a sandwich are getting a longer look, a more mindful approach, a more compelling narrative. But most of that attention has gone to the bread, the meats and cheeses, the spreads—all worthy of love and attention. Now, chefs are studying the produce in sandwiches, moving it into a larger role and building more flavor in each bite. The banh mi, that craveable Vietnamese sandwich, has definitely been the champion for innovation in this space. Pickled carrot, pickled radish, fresh cucumber and fresh herbs are inextricably linked to the success of this sandwich, which has seen explosive growth over the last few years.
Look at the continuum of an onion as an example of where produce in sandwiches is heading: white onion, red onion, caramelized onion, pickled Vidalia onion, onion jam. Craft, technique and uniqueness lend craveability and signature status. What’s driving this? Certainly, the veg-centric trend has breathed new life into the preparation of produce. More attention is paid today, whether those fruits or vegetables are blistered or charred, bathed in a braise, studded with crispy bacon, or dolloped with lovely bits of soft cheese. This “new normal” is cascading into other parts of the menu. Expectations are great. Competition is fierce. How do you leverage flavor-forward produce to make your sandwiches stand out?
The Spicy Pickle in Reno, Nev., translates the trend in its Santa Cruz sandwich with roasted turkey, cheddar, avocado, corn relish, romaine, tomato and chipotle mayo on ciabatta or honey multigrain bread. At Zaytinya in Washington, D.C., the Cerkez on Toasted Olive Bread stars shredded chicken, walnut-cilantro sauce, roasted red peppers, feta, mâche and caramelized onion. Corner Bakery Cafe, based in Dallas, carries 45 items in its produce cooler, says Ric Scicchitano, senior vice president of food and beverage. “Produce is always those pretty things in a sandwich shop,” he says. “How do I sex that up a bit? Pickled carrots, pickled onion, crunchy slaws—produce is your paintbrush.”
Balancing Meat-Centric Builds
“We’re a meat-driven concept, so we need to find creative ways to lighten things up on the sandwiches,” says Alexia Gawlak, chef/partner at Swine & Sons Provisions in Orlando, Fla. Balance and texture are well-known strategies, but she and her husband and co-chef/partner, Rhys Gawlak, take it to new heights with big, fresh flavors from produce. On their pastrami sandwich, traditional dill pickles are subbed out for fresh dill. “We layer on big pieces of fresh dill,” she says. “The herbaceous punch is unexpected.” Their Florida Shrimp Roll combines butter-poached Key West pink shrimp, celery, herbs and a fennel-citrus slaw on a toasted brioche roll. The slaw is where the magic lies—grapefruit and orange segments, fennel, frisée, and an herb mix of chive, chervil, dill, parsley and preserved lemon. “Texture here is so important,” she says. “The bread is toasty, and you get really fresh shrimp and fresh citrus. We cut the elements into big pieces so nothing gets muted.”
On Swine & Sons’ Warm Smoked Turkey, Rhys Gawlak says they were looking for balance. The sandwich sees smoked turkey, tasso ham, avocado, tomato jam, malt aïoli and arugula on toasted millet bread. “The main components are spicy turkey and ham, so you need layers of sweet, which we get from the heirloom tomato jam, and then the avocado helps wash some of the spice away,” he says. They’re now working on a produce component for a country ham sandwich on white bread. “I think we’re going to compress a melon through vacuum sealing, shave it on a mandoline, then add fresh mint and peppers to it.”
At Mile End in New York, the Chicken Schnitzel BLT finds balance in pickled green tomato. At Pasture in Richmond, Va., the fried clams sandwich with tartar sauce gets a hit of heat and acidity with a jalapeño slaw and house dill pickles.
Jeff Sinelli, the founder and “chief vibe officer” at Dallas-based Which Wich Superior Sandwiches, relies on a proprietary olive relish to balance his meat-centric sandwich builds. “The olive salad really gets you a mix of vegetables, textures and colors—combined with an oil that becomes seasoned with the spices you have selected,” he says. “It’s a one-stop spread that can add a tremendous amount of flavor to meat and cheese, like a muffuletta or our Italian specialties.”
At Branch Line in Watertown, Mass., Stephen Oxaal, chef de cuisine, needed a winning counterpoint to his pork shoulder sandwich. He’s been serving a porchetta dish on the menu since opening late last year. He always has excess pork shoulder, so he sliced it thinly on a deli slicer and built it on grilled ciabatta with kefalotyri cheese and black pepper. “It was great, but it was missing something,” he says. “It needed oomph. It needed crunch.” Oxaal serves a cucumber crudité as a small plate, and he thought it might work well here, too. The cucumbers are cut into coins, marinated in salt, pepper and sugar, then tossed in distilled white vinegar and heavy cream. Right before service, they get a confetti of fresh mint. “It’s light, refreshing and crisp, with the cream balancing it all out. It works perfectly with the richness of the pork in the sandwich,” he says.
Finding a Winning Strategy
For Oxaal, landing on the right mix of high-impact produce in his sandwich builds goes beyond tasting the build once it’s complete. “We eat a lot of them, and we eat the whole thing,” he says. “You have to, or else you might end up with a sandwich that gives your guests palate fatigue.” At Branch Line, he was developing a rotisserie ham sandwich with a Vidalia onion jam. “We ate the whole thing a number of times and asked, ‘Is it well balanced from first bite to last bite? Does it work the whole way through?’”
He also talks about the importance of being a little daring with flavors that work together. “You know avocado works well on a sandwich. You know lime goes with avocado, so maybe add a lime mayonnaise to that build,” says Oxaal. “One thing I discovered: Roasted carrots and avocado go beautifully together. It’s slightly adventurous for a sandwich, but it works.”
Avocado is definitely in the spotlight in sandwich innovation across the board. At Which Wich, Sinelli says, “We are high and bullish on avocado. We really believe in slicing it and serving it in its purest form. It’s always sliced whole because we believe it stands alone as a star.”
At Corner Bakery, Scicchitano uses a thoughtful approach, considering the eating experience thoroughly when looking to add flavor-forward produce to sandwich builds. “It’s hard to get the garden into a sandwich when you’re grilling it, like with a panini,” he says. “We take a different approach, using roasted tomatoes or pickled red onion for that flavor punch.” With cold sandwiches, the strategy is, of course, different. “It’s all about the texture and the bite,” he says. “With a wrap, I need a nice crunchy piece of romaine, maybe pickled carrots or pickled jalapeños. It’s too easy to jam in hummus or tomato, but then it’s a pile of mush. With a toasted, crisp baguette, you can go for the more delicate greens and a good mix of textures.” One example: Corner Bakery’s Asian Barbecue Pulled Pork sandwich with cabbage, house-pickled jalapeños and cilantro on grilled flatbread. “Cabbage is actually my new favorite-—either straight, or maybe with a little vinaigrette,” says Scicchitano. “It’s got a good crunch, good bite to it.” Cross-utilization of these produce stars is important, he says. “If you have a one-hit wonder, it better be a helluva hit.”
Driving this newfound attention to the produce component of a sandwich is the continuing quest for craveability. Today, consumers are responding to developed flavors in fruits and vegetables, making it a smart addition to sandwich recipe development. “You’ve got one bite to make an impression with a sandwich,” says Swine & Sons’ Rhys Gawlak. “They’re either going to like it or be put off by it. You have to make it count.”