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Ode to the Sandwich

Jennifer Pfaff

    Jeff Mauro is serious about sandwiches. The former comic became a celebrity chef when he won season seven of Food Network Star, where he focused solely on creating terrific sandwiches out of more than just sliced meat between two pieces of bread. Now, as the host of his own Food Network show, Sandwich King, Mauro continues to prove that with a little creativity, any dish can become a handheld meal.

Jeff Mauro - Food Network - Sandwich King   He’ll share his sandwich philosophy in South Florida when he comes to the Palm Beach Food and Wine Festival, held December 7-11 (see for full schedule). On December 8, Mauro will participate in the Burgers by the Beach event, where he’ll pair wine with a specialty burger (which, he assures, “definitely” classifies as a sandwich). The dedicated chef recently talked about his love of sandwiches with So, why sandwiches?

MAURO: I don’t think there’s any finer way to get a complex delicious bite, rather than knife-and-forking it. It’s more fun to get all the flavors and textures of one meal into one bite.


The sandwich doesn't always get the respect it deserves, but you elevate it to a whole other level.

It’s been a trend now. In the last couple years, a lot of chefs have been opening sandwich shops. I think I was a pioneer in this, of course. They all copied me. Just because it’s not plated to towering heights or fitted with gold dust flakes doesn’t mean it can’t taste exquisite.


Is there anything that can't be made into a sandwich?

Of course not. I don’t think so. People have asked me do chicken noodle soup—I’ve made lasagna sheets and breaded them and fried them, and that’s the base. I still have yet to be stumped.


Ever met a sandwich you didn’t like?

Of course. That’s why I got into this. There are too many bad sandwiches out there. People say there’s no such thing as bad pizza. Sure, you can eat a $1 slice of pizza, and it’s going to be all right; you get your bread, cheese and sauce. But you have a bad sandwich, like an airport kiosk stale sandwich, and that’s going to stay with you for years. You’ll be scarred for life. That’s why I was put on this planet. You can make a bad grilled cheese with two ingredients. But it’s very easy to make with fantastic ingredients. A bad grilled cheese is a horrible experience.


What was your latest horrible sandwich experience?

I just got back from New York. I was at the airport and I had 20 minutes to eat. I didn’t want fast food, I didn’t want to sit down and I didn’t want another bag of trail mix, so I grabbed a wrap from the kiosk. It was chicken and $12. I take a bite, and it’s wilted lettuce. The chicken had a strange texture—like, who drew these grilled marks on it? I didn’t eat it all. I was just miserable. I made it through, though.


What was your best bite?

My favorite sandwich in the world is pastrami on rye from Langer’s Deli in Los Angeles, California. It was the best bread and the best house-cured, hand-cut meat I ever had. There was a little smear of mustard. You take a bite of it and you can’t stop. It was so rich and perfect. It was just the definition of simplicity at its best.


If you can't pick it up, is it still a sandwich?

Yes. There are open-faced sandwiches in the Midwest called horseshoes, which are big, plated, open-faced sandwiches that do need a knife and fork. There are different genres, phylum and family [of sandwiches].


Finish this sentence: "A sandwich a day … "

Chases the blues away [laughs]. It will lead to a six-pack.


What would be on the quintessential Palm Beach sandwich?

I definitely think of high-end cuisine, so something almost French inspired. You think of Daniel Boulud and people who enjoy the finer things in life. I would do a very delicate roast beef sandwich—prime rib. I’d cook it, thinly slice it and add a nice little blue cheese and some homemade spicy pickles. I’d put it on a beautifully buttery and grilled brioche bun—and, of course, topped with some gold flakes [laughs].


What are you looking forward to about attending the Palm Beach Food and Wine Festival?

I am looking forward to maybe getting a slight tan and eating my face off with some of the most talented humans on the planet. And, of course, making my burger for the burger event. You’ll have to see it to believe it.


What kind of sandwich pairs well with a red wine? A white?

Any of the stronger redder meats for red wine, like a prime-rib sandwich. For a white wine, I’d do a nice chicken, like a cold chicken sandwich with a nice dryer wine, like a pinot grigio. It’s a very, very popular combination, especially in my family with bridal and baby showers. They always have chicken salad sandwiches and cases of pinot grigio.


Have you savored any sandwiches in South Florida?

I’ve been to Miami once, and that’s about it. But I’ve never been to Palm Beach. I have a cousin who lives out there, and I can’t wait to check it out. I’m also going to try Spoto’s [Oyster Bar].


If you could be any kind of sandwich, what would you be?

A lean one. A muscular, lean sandwich. I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon.

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January 2017