Adam Rapoport on The Art of the Sandwich

Feb 9, 2018

Sandwiches are the work horse of lunches everywhere, but not always memorable.  Adam Rapoport of Bon Appetit helps turn this work horse into a work of art. Check out his tips, then try his recipe for Green Goddess Tuna Salad Sandwich, a beautiful melding of tuna, greens and herbs.


Francis Lam: So, you and the magazine put together this enormous package on the A to Zs of the art of sandwich making.

Adam Rapoport: Exactly. Not the A to Z of sandwiches; we're not running down every type, but rather how to make sandwiches -- because I find that, probably more so than any other dish --people are really particular about how they like their sandwiches. Even something like PB & J --it's peanut butter and jelly. But, you ask someone and they're like, well, obviously, you use creamy, and I'm like, what do you mean obviously? No, you don't, you use chunky. Why would you use chunky? Creamy is how you're supposed to make a PB & J. And then you talk about, well, it's on white bread, of course. I'm like, I don't like white bread, I like multigrain, I want it sturdy. Then, do you toast it? Why would you toast it? And it gets into this whole ethos and psychology of how to build the perfect sandwich.

FL: And so, from those conversations, which I would imagine are typically friendly, but the way you're characterizing them maybe are not so friendly conversations --

AR: They can get a little heated at times.

FL: I would love to hear some of the letters of your sandwich alphabet.

AR: Well, all right. P is for PB & J and it's obviously PB & J. Talking to some professional chefs and sandwich makers, you wonder how clever could they get; they just make the same thing. And it was interesting talking to some of them. For instance, this one sandwich maker Pete Lemos at Wax Paper in Los Angeles spreads the peanut butter and crushes fresh peanuts on top of the peanut butter, and then does the strawberry jam, and then slices fresh strawberries on top of the jam.

FL: Oh, my goodness.

AR: I'm like, oh, that, yeah, that works. Tommy Habetz at Bunk Sandwiches in Portland -- this is kind of cool -- he'll do peanut butter on both slices of the bread so the jam doesn't leech into the sandwich, the bread itself. When you were a kid, you'd bring your sandwich to school --

FL: And half of it is soggy because the jam is water-based.

AR: So then, he'll do the jam in the middle and then sprinkle it with some sea salt.

FL: Very smart. So there's a barrier philosophy. I feel like when you put mayonnaise on a sandwich, it almost always feels like it needs to go on both sides, both pieces of bread for the same reason. If there's lettuce or tomato, the mayonnaise will act as that barrier. You want to protect the bread.

AR: With mayo, I'm one of those guys, I will literally just have a mayo sandwich. I love mayonnaise. Give me a jar of Hellman's and a baguette and I'm all good. And of course, I know our listeners in the South, they're going to be like, why aren't you using Duke's, and I'm like, because I can't find Duke's up here in New York. But it's interesting, because mayo is fat, and it also repels any sort of wateriness because oil and water don't mix, so if you have a wet tomato, that mayonnaise on the other side buffers it, and I think flavor-wise, you always want to put something on both sides. You want that mouth feel to connect on all different levels.

FL: Although I'm also a firm believer that if you only put it on one side, the mayo has to go on the bottom piece of bread, meaning the one that is going to hit your tongue, because when you have mayo on the top, like on a burger bun or something, I feel like you never taste the mayonnaise because you have to fight through everything else before you get to it. And let's face it, the sandwich, to me, anyway, is at least 49% of the time a vehicle for mayonnaise.

AR: I think a vehicle for mayonnaise and condiments in general. If you think, a veggie burger is not a sandwich, but even if you don't like veggie burgers, you still get to put all the good stuff on there like a regular burger. But in our A to Z guide, A is for architecture, and that's the first thing you have to consider. You're building a sandwich. It's not a recipe. What do you put where? For instance, with cold cuts, I love good ham, like prosciutto cotto, cooked prosciutto, or Paris-style ham, but I will always be like, if I'm going to the butcher to get some, or the deli, I want that shaved so thin it's almost transparent, and then you can create these little folds. It's almost like a meat rosette, and that creates a loftiness to the sandwich. I don't want that. As a kid, you'd have those thick-sliced cold cuts with that weird rubber stuff on the outside, and it would just be this dense mouth of meatiness. I want airiness; that stuff matters. And then, where do you put the avocado so the avocado doesn't slide out? These things are important.

FL: I want to get to this idea of the thin-sliced meat thing. When I was a kid, my folks worked in New York City. They worked in Chinatown, and Little Italy is right next door, and they would go to the delis in Little Italy, and no matter what they got, they would always come back super, super thin-sliced. Like you said, they're almost like filament thin and it would be such a difference.

AR: First of all, the Italians know what they're doing when it comes to cold cuts. In Italy, the meat is always shaved super-thin. And especially in Japanese culture, texture matters when it comes to food and it's an important element in the taste experience. It's not just the flavor, it's the texture also, and what I like about Italian sandwiches, ones you get in Italy, is that they don't overstuff the sandwich with meat. If you get a prosciutto or a mortadella sandwich, there's an equal amount of meat to cheese to bread to some sort of butter or mayonnaise or whatever. It doesn't have to be six inches of meat --

FL: Clubbing you in the head.

AR: Yeah, which, it's okay if it's pastrami because that's kind of a different thing, but basic cold cuts? I don't need that much mortadella in my sandwich.

FL: It's more about the combination.

AR: Yeah, exactly. Every element in the sandwich, again, with architecture, should complement one another, not one element should dominate.

FL: I have to ask you about one of your letters. D for diagonal.

AR: Oh, yeah, well, obviously. Again, every sandwich tastes better when it's sliced on the diagonal, so you get those triangular shapes and that one pointy end is the entryway for that first bite. You're like, OK, I know to start there, and it just looks so much more modern. It's like a Mies van der Rohe skyscraper. It's clean angles, and you're like, ooh, that looks good. Sliced in the middle, it's like I'm in second grade and just eating that peanut butter and jelly sandwich where the jelly is leeching through the bread.

FL: I'm going to look forward to having this conversation with you again four years from now, when plating trends are all rectangles, and you'll be like, no, obviously, you have to slice the sandwich down the middle so you have two perfect rectangles.

AR: Oh god, I'm a traditional modernist. But speaking of bread, another great tip in this package comes from Mason Hereford at Turkey and the Wolf in New Orleans. We named his restaurant best new restaurant in America this year, et cetera, et cetera. For all his sandwiches, he griddles the bread. He butters both sides of each piece of nice white bread, fries those in a pan so they get nice golden brown, and then he either puts them in a cooling rack or builds a tee-pee of them leaning against each other and lets the griddled toast rest for 30 seconds before he builds the sandwich. The fat collects back in, so it crisps up and it's not too warm and soggy as soon as the thing is going on. You get this crisp, golden, crunchy bread-toast sort of thing around any sandwich, and it's one of those key moves where you're like, oh, that's genius, I'm doing that.

FL: Totally. That's like, oh, if you have beautiful French fries or friend chicken, you don't put the lid back on, you don't put the cover on it.

AR: I've done that before. I've gone to get takeout fried chicken and I immediately get to my car and I open it up and I spread it all over the passenger seat.

FL: Just directly on the seat.

AR: Sorry, honey, but I had to.

FL: I've got to save the crispness. Okay, what are other letters that you love?

AR: All right, so, E for egg sandwich, which you see a lot of these days. Egg sandwiches are having a moment after being a basic thing, at least in New York City, for decades. And what you see at Wylie Dufresne's Du's Donuts out here in Brooklyn -- which he does, and is actually a classic French technique -- is to cook the scrambled eggs super soft and custardy. It's that technique where you make a scrambled egg over medium heat and you're constantly moving your little rubber spatula around, so it almost takes on the consistency of soft polenta, these teeny little curds. It never develops any skin or brownness, and it's done before you think it's done, and it should be, like I said, like soft pudding, and you just ladle that onto whatever sort of toast or cheese, or whatever. And he also adds, which I love to do also sometimes, a dollop of cream cheese into the scrambled eggs, and that just gives it this magical creaminess and sustains that creaminess so the eggs never seize up. And then if you want to throw some American cheese on there, you can also do that, but it's that texture, crispy griddled bread, custardy soft scrambled eggs, and again, it's still just eggs and toast, but you're like, oh, that's a whole different level of eggs and toast that I've never experienced.

FL: Okay, let's get out of here, I've got to get a sandwich.

AR: Exactly.

FL: Thanks, Adam.

AR: Thanks, Francis.