‘Sandwiches are meals, not snacks,’ says Sandwich King Max Halley

Max Halley wants us to think bigger when it comes to sandwiches, he tells Prudence Wade. As his third cookbook hits shelves, he talks about how he comes up with new sandwich ideas, his ‘sandwich pilgrimage’ to New Orleans and why he’ll never open a small plates restaurant

Prudence Wade
Wednesday 08 May 2024 06:00 BST
Halley opened Max’s Sandwich Shop in 2014
Halley opened Max’s Sandwich Shop in 2014 (Jonathan Brady/PA)

It’s crunchy, salty, tangy, herby, soft and fragrant – the ideal combination for a sandwich.

But this is no average sandwich. This is a sandwich made, in front of me, by Max Halley – sandwich expert, Sunday Brunch regular and owner of cult North London restaurant Max’s Sandwich Shop (what else would it be called?).

At Max’s Sandwich Shop, you won’t get a few cold cuts slammed between slices of bread. Instead, Halley’s approach to sandwiches is far bigger and bolder – his mantra is well summed up when he says bluntly: “It’s a meal, not a snack.”

The sandwich Halley, 41, makes for me is fried spring rolls inside fresh focaccia, with a funky vegan mayonnaise, kimchi mixed with sauerkraut, sesame seeds and a whole lot of fresh herbs, called That’s How We Spring Roll.

It’s absolutely delicious, and very much a meal. Like many sandwiches Halley has created, the filling isn’t typically what you’d have between two slices of bread – his other creations include the lasagne sandwich or the shop’s bestseller, the ham, egg and chips.

“I tend to think of dishes and plates of food, then think about how to turn those into a sandwich – because sometimes if you try to think about a sandwich, you end up just making a deli sandwich,” Halley says.

“Trying not to think about sandwiches is oddly the easiest way to come up with more creative sandwiches… That was what I wanted to do when I opened [back in 2014], I felt like the sandwich had been a bit neglected. Someone should think a bit more creatively about it.”

With a culinary background, Halley had the opportunity to open a restaurant a decade ago, and could have “opened a small plates, modern European restaurant trying for a Michelin star – like a great deal of other people do”, he says, but that didn’t quite suit his boisterous personality.

That’s How We Spring Roll is one of the recipes from the new book
That’s How We Spring Roll is one of the recipes from the new book (Jonathan Brady/PA)

“I wanted to take the thing that had mass appeal, but had been a bit neglected. And I thought: it’s sandwiches.” This was particularly crystallised after a “sandwich pilgrimage” to New Orleans, where among all the classic dishes like po’ boys, he had a stewed roast beef sandwich which completely changed his perspective.

But back to Max’s Sandwich Shop, where Halley is putting together my dish.

“I guess sandwiches begin with bread,” he winks. Despite looking like a fairly humble sandwich shop, a lot of work goes on behind the scenes – including fresh bread made daily for every sandwich.

I tend to think of dishes and plates of food, then think about how to turn those into a sandwich – because sometimes if you try to think about a sandwich, you end up just making a deli sandwich

Max Halley

“One loaf makes 10 sandwiches and on a Saturday, we will do 450 covers or something like that,” Halley says, which means the team is “banging out 45 loaves on a Saturday”.

And there’s a reason for this – good bread is the basis of any good sandwich. “Due to us being busy, [people who come to the shop have sandwiches] in bread made like two hours ago – so it’s accidentally fresh as f**k.”

One question that occupies a lot of space in Halley’s brain is simple: what is a sandwich? For him, it’s all about playing “fast and loose” with the concept, which is particularly seen in his new cookbook – his third – called Max’s World Of Sandwiches.

“Is it a bready thing? Yes, it’s a sandwich,” Halley says simply – although everyone has to draw a line somewhere, and for him it’s at open sandwiches (“stuff on toast is a stretch – even for me!” he exclaims).

As he builds the dish, he dives into what components are needed for the perfect sandwich. That tangy homemade vegan mayonnaise – Halley doesn’t believe that going plant-based means you should be without naughtiness – is slathered on both slices of bread (“you should always spread with a spoon, not a knife – they’re much better for spreading than knives”).

The next tip is simple: “The reason why the sandwiches are built in layers is so you can guarantee that every bite contains every element of the sandwich,” Halley explains.

“That’s why here we will never put cherry tomatoes in a sandwich, because you end up with one bite that is all cherry tomato, and the next bite is no cherry tomato. I think every element should be present in every bite – that just makes it more delicious.”

Halley plays fast and loose with the concept of sandwiches in his third cookbook
Halley plays fast and loose with the concept of sandwiches in his third cookbook (Hardie Grant Books/PA)

Black and white sesame seeds are sprinkled over the sauce, then freshly deep-fried spring rolls that Halley rolled himself with homemade pickled veg are then placed on top. Next, comes a mix of vegan kimchi and sauerkraut – for the ultimate hit of funk and tang – and a load of parsley, mint and coriander.

“A lot of the sandwiches here involve herbs and always in large quantities, rather than using lettuce. Lettuce is lovely, but its role is freshness, rather than anything else – and herbs, when the sandwich is on the way to your mouth, you smell mint.

“To have aromatic things is upping the sandwich’s game a little bit.”

The sandwich ticks every box – in every bite there’s that mix of crunchy spring roll, tangy sauce, fresh herbs and soft bread. As I’m eating, half of it spills out of the sandwich and onto the brown paper below – ready to be mopped up when I’m finished.

For Halley, that’s the sign of a good sandwich: “I know they are messy – I think there’s something nice about that. You feel like you know you’ve had it.”

These are all tips you can take away to make your own meal of a sandwich – and if in doubt when making your next creation, you could do worse than follow Halley’s business ethos.

“The two MOs of this sandwich shop are: can you blend it up and mix it into mayonnaise? And what will happen when I throw in the deep fat fryer? Loads of great things will happen as a result of doing that.”

‘Max’s World Of Sandwiches’ by Max Halley and Benjamin Benton (Hardie Grant Books, £25).

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