A few weeks before the pandemic hit, when I was still dining out normally and not making every meal for myself, I had a lunch to remember at Blackbird: the bánh mì melt. With pickled carrots and daikon, jalapeños, and cilantro tucked between layers of provolone, it was exactly the kind of bright, spicy vegetarian sandwich I crave. I left knowing I had to write something about it.
I didn’t get the chance: Restaurants, of course, shut down in mid-March, and Blackbird has joined several other One Off Hospitality Group spots in temporarily suspending carryout and delivery. But executive chef Ryan Pfeiffer hasn’t let up on his sandwich obsession during lockdown. He’s come up with a movement to #sandwichinplace, tapping chefs to make and post their own sandwiches on Instagram. To kick it off, he made a video with some fellow chefs, including Kikkō’s Mariya Russell and Elske’s David Posey.
Others are jumping on board — the hashtag currently has over 200 sandwiches shared to it, and I can hardly do a lunchtime scroll through Instagram without seeing at least one tantalizing #sandwichinplace. Lost Lake chef Fred Noinaj made a fried chicken salad sandwich with avocado and mashed potato mayo. The local hospitality duo @oq_fooddiary made bánh mì with Duke’s Mayo and leftover shortribs from El Che Bar. Oriole’s Noah Sandoval made a sandwich with jamón ibérico de bellota, bacon, white anchovy, and roasted garlic aioli on sourdough, with a side of tomato and saffron soup. People in Oakland, Las Vegas, Vermont, and Minneapolis have posted sandwiches, and the hashtag has even gone international, with a chef from Mexico City getting in on the sandwich making.
“Everything is bad right now for everyone, and I wanted to find a way to bring happiness back while also encouraging people to be safe and stay home,” Pfeiffer says.
Pfeiffer has been bringing chefs together over sandwiches for a while. In March, he hosted Michelin-Starred Sandwiches, which featured creations by chefs like Posey, who made a whitefish sandwich, and Sandoval, who made a muffuletta. (Pfeiffer himself made a crunch wrap.) Last November, he hosted a popup with Mason Hereford of Turkey and the Wolf, a renowned New Orleans sandwich haven. And pre–bánh mì melt, Pfeiffer served a number of different sandwiches at Blackbird. The last lunch menu had a roast beef sandwich inspired by Arby’s, with a fine dining upgrade: It included a touch of truffle, horseradish, salt and vinegar potato chips, and a steak sauce.
So, why sandwiches? “People who cook want to make food that makes people happy, and nobody gets mad when they see a sandwich,” Pfeiffer says. “It’s easy to do at home, fun, and just as delicious as anything you can get at a Michelin-starred restaurant — but this time, everyone can come.”
Since not everyone is quarantined at home with fancy ingredients, Pfeiffer has tips for how to improve your sandwich game with minimal effort.
Go with what you know
Pfeiffer’s philosophy for making a great sandwich? “You’re not reinventing the wheel; you’re making it tasty.” So, if your go-to sandwich is a PB&J, swap out the jam, mix up the bread, or add some potato chips for crunch. Work within a familiar framework and find ways to change it up.
Make the most of leftovers
“I like to take leftovers and mix it into eggs,” Pfeiffer says. “I’ve been messing around the past couple of years and making tamagoyaki, a rolled omelet. I’ll use anything from General Tso’s chicken to gyro meat, chopping it up and layering it in with the egg. Then, I’ll put that into a sandwich.”
Speaking of eggs…
Besides scrambling any leftovers into eggs, you could add a fried egg to your sandwich for some extra protein. Or, you could turn your sandwich into a toad-in-the-hole. “You take any kind of sandwich on square bread, cut out the middle, drop an egg in it, then pan-fry it,” Pfeiffer says. “Once it’s cooked, cut it in half. You’ll have a runny egg and then you can dip your sandwich into it.”
Don’t be afraid to mess up
“It’s a very rare occurrence that I find a sandwich I don’t like,” Pfeiffer says. “Think outside the box. Stack it as high as you can and see if you can fit it into your mouth. Share it with your friend. Food is supposed to be fun; if it tastes good, that’s a bonus.”