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How to make the ultimate sandwich

How to make the ultimate sandwich

by Tom Shingler 12 May 2017

Tom Shingler sits down with Max Halley at his acclaimed sandwich shop in north London to unearth the art and science behind creating a perfect sandwich.

Having ‘a passion for sandwiches’ sounds like the sort of blurb you’d read on a pretty average café’s website. But the second you talk to Max Halley, you realise it’s a thing that actually does exist beyond the realms of PR hyperbole.

Perhaps it’s his chef background – Max learnt how to cook in the kitchens of London restaurants such as Arbutus, LeCoq and Brindisa before deciding to open Max’s Sandwich Shop in Crouch Hill, London back in 2014. Three years later, he’s won awards from the likes of Observer Food Monthly for his quirky – borderline obsessive – mission to take the sandwich from a quick, easy and boring lunch option to a gourmet dish that just happens to be between two slices of bread. Max and his small team in an even smaller kitchen now serve around 1,000 sandwiches a week, with up to 400 people visiting the shop on Saturdays.

But why sandwiches? Max has obviously got the skills needed to create a tasty plate of food, and most of us still see a sandwich as a glorified snack or the path of least resistance when we’re hungry and busy. ‘I only had enough money when I started out to pay for myself, one front of house and another person in the kitchen,’ he says. ‘So I needed something we could spend all day cooking, and then during service just put together. Sandwiches fit the bill, plus you don’t need cutlery or plates to serve them, so there’s no need for loads of washing up. Also, I felt like no one else owned the sandwich – it kinda maxed out at Pret a Manger, which did a great job of putting a genuinely decent sandwich on the high street, but it still had all those convenience food, supermarket packet vibes.’

Max’s sandwiches are as far as you can get from a fridge-cold deep fill chicken and bacon. Take his signature Ham, Egg ‘n’ Chips, for example – stuffed with slow-cooked ham hock, a fried egg, shoestring fries, piccalilli and malt vinegar mayo, served hot and about the size of a house brick. Or his current vegetarian option, The Bhaji Smuggler, comprised of carrot bhajis, a coriander, green chilli and peanut salsa, yoghurt, sweet herbs, pickles, spinach and Bombay Mix. There are always four on the menu and cost £8.50 a pop but, unlike cheaper sandwiches that can be wolfed down for an uninspired work lunch, these behemoths leave you stuffed and satisfied – just like a decent meal at a restaurant.

Max Halley
Max opened his shop back in 2014, and his enthusiastic, incredibly entertaining character is as much reason to visit as his sandwiches
Max's Sandwich Shop
The shop is only open in the evenings during the week, and are everything is available to take away or eat in

Step 1: the idea

The first step in creating an incredible sandwich is finding inspiration for your filling, and the best way to do that is to go out and eat as much as you can. ‘Whenever I go out to eat at different places I’m always thinking about whether the dish could work in a sandwich,’ says Max. ‘My poor girlfriend – everywhere we eat I’m always just picking at the food, wondering whether it could be mixed into mayonnaise or broken down into layers. Then, once I’ve had an idea, I just sit down with a pen and paper and start working it out.’

Despite only four sandwiches being on his menu at any one time, Max doesn’t buy into the need to constantly innovate and change what’s on there. His Ham, Egg ‘n’ Chips will always be on there, but he’ll only change the others if he’s had a bout of inspiration. ‘Currently I’m working on this Greek thing that uses mutton shanks,’ he says. ‘Mutton can be a bit much as it’s got this really strong flavour, but in the context of sandwiches that really works because it allows you to throw in other elements that are just as flavourful. The salsa can be punchier, you can create a sluttier mayonnaise… it just works.’

Bhaji Smuggler
'The Bhaji Smuggler' includes crispy carrot bhajis, plenty of sweet herbs, a good dollop of flavoured yoghurt and a handful of Bombay Mix
After many hours of experimentation, Max discovered focaccia is the ultimate bread for sandwich-making

Step 2: the build

Got an idea what you’d like your sandwich to taste like? Great – the next step is to approach its creation from a chef’s point of view. Luckily, Max has a foolproof system to ensure everything on his menu is guaranteed to be delicious. ‘I’ve got a kind of sandwich theory, which comes from spending years working for people in restaurant kitchens who were much better at cooking than me,’ he explains. ‘I wanted my sandwiches to be different from all the others available by treating the contents like a proper chef treats a proper plate of food. That hadn’t really been done before – it was just meat, mayo and lettuce or whatever. Despite being a sandwich shop, you’d be staggered at how many sandwiches we sell without the bread, and I think that’s testament to the quality of the stuff we’re putting inside them.

‘I think any great dish in a restaurant needs to have six elements: hot, cold, sweet, sour, crunchy and soft. If they’re all present, you’re onto a winner. I make sure no sandwich ever goes on the menu here without ticking all those boxes. It doesn’t mean you need six ingredients – a gherkin can be sweet, sour and crunchy – but the balance needs to be right. For example, our Et Tu Brute? Murdering the Caesar sandwich contains roast guinea fowl, a pickled grape, wild garlic and tarragon salsa, baby gem, chicory, garlic crutons and anchovy mayo. In amongst those ingredients are those six elements.’

Step 3: the bread

By this point you’ve hopefully got a decent list of ingredients that hit Max’s six-point system on the head. But the bread is just as important as what’s inside if you don’t want the sandwich to disintegrate or fall apart. And the most obvious choices might not be the best. ‘I love sourdough,’ says Max. ‘I love squishing steak tartare onto it, or spreading jam and butter on it. But I don’t think it’s good for sandwiches at all. I obsessed about bread for ages, and basically, after baking and making sandwiches with all different types, I found that focaccia is the best. Everything else had something wrong with it – sourdough, for instance, has these giant air holes in that mean there’s more filling on your hands than there is in the sandwich.

‘As well as the contents being hot, cold, sweet, sour, crunchy and soft, you need moisture in there as well, whether that’s mayo, yoghurt, loads of butter or just meat juices,’ he adds. ‘So I knew the bread needed to be solid with a dense crumb or tight structure, and that it needed to have a crust so the bread could soak up the moisture without falling apart. Focaccia ticked all the boxes. It’s also simple to make and works really well in a restaurant environment because it bakes in trays that fit in the oven perfectly.’

So there it is – the guidelines you need to create an incredible sandwich. Pile the ingredients high, serve it hot and you’ll be rewarded with an absolute gutbuster of a meal that has all the flavour and texture of a dish in a high-end restaurant, and every bite is guaranteed to include every single element. But if you’re still not convinced that a sandwich can be more than an uninspiring lunch, get down to Max’s Sandwich Shop and try one for yourself – at the very least, it’s amazing to watch the man whizz around the room, chatting to everyone with a slightly manic enthusiasm about everything sarnie-related.

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