Sandwich King Chef Jeff Mauro is an expert at what goes on between two slices of bread.
A GOOD sandwich, says Chicago-born chef Jeff Mauro, is all about ratios. And, good bread.
“You can use the most expensive and decadent ingredients ... but if your bread is bad, it will ruin the whole thing. Use fresh bread, or if it’s not fresh, reactivate it. Spread some butter on it and toast it up,” says Mauro definitively.
And those piled-high sandwiches? Never a great idea.
“Some sandwich places, you know, they give you 40 options and some people want 30 of those 40 options on their bread. You might as well eat a stew or a salad in that case. When you’re eating a sandwich, you want to taste each flavour and texture and you don’t want it to be too messy. Keep it simple ... four or five ingredients at most,” he says.
Well, if anyone knows sandwiches, it’s 35-year-old Mauro who won himself a spot on TV by beating out the competition on reality show, The Next Food Network Star two years ago. Mauro was in Kuala Lumpur recently while on tour with the network to promote his show, Sandwich King, which airs on The Food Network Asia (Astro channel 727).
On the reality competition, Mauro impressed the judges – well-known chefs Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis and Alton Brown – by showing them how he could “turn any meal into a sandwich and any sandwich into a meal”.
He wowed the judges with his simple but tasty sandwich creations such as braised pork with slaw, Gorgonzola spread and sweet potato chips, an Italian beef sandwich with suet-fried chips and jardinera (pickled vegetables) and Thai basil tofu lettuce cups.
But, it wasn’t just his ability to innovate the simple sarnie that impressed; it was his personality, his humour, his ease in front of the camera and, well, his good looks too, most likely.
Mauro admits that he was quite comfortable in front of the camera. While he loves to cook (and eat), he loves to entertain equally as much. It was this combo that prompted him to try out for the reality show ... three times.
“I was always a performer. I did plays and stand up comedy from the time I was in the third grade. I always loved making people laugh. My second love was food – cooking and especially eating. If you saw pictures of me when I was younger, you’d probably see that. But when I graduated from college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Me and my cousin opened a deli, you know, a sandwich shop, and that is really where I grew to really love cooking and preparing sandwiches and interacting with customers.
“After about four years my goal was to move to Hollywood and to try and get my own cooking show. Well, it didn’t work. I tried and got close a couple of times but it didn’t work out. So I went to culinary school to legitimise myself. I knew I couldn’t be the best chef in the world or the funniest comic, but I wanted to be the funniest chef in the world. That was my goal. So, I tried out for the show three times and only managed to get cast the last time,” he shares.
Though he developed his passion for creating unique sandwiches while working at his deli, Mauro’s love for sarnies began years before.
“I just always preferred eating a sandwich to anything else. I mean, everything tastes better between two slices of bread! Even as a kid, we would go out to dinner as a family ... to a nice restaurant and I would always order a meatball sandwich. Not a steak or pasta or a salad. And even when my mum made those things for Sunday night dinners, I would take the table bread and make a sandwich out of the food. For me, it was a no-brainer.
“I used to pack my own sandwiches to school. I’d separate each ingredient into separate bags and assemble my sandwich at lunch. I had, like, nine bags!
“So, as you can guess, I wasn’t the coolest kid in school,” says the good-natured chef.
Well, it seems as if Mauro’s having the last laugh now. With the fourth season of his show underway and a second show in the works, Mauro is a bona fide celebrity chef with fans across the world.
“It is really flattering to be recognised. People come up to me at the mall or at the airport wanting autographs and photographs and it’s nice. I mean, I’m not bombarded by fans or anything ... I’m not Brad Pitt but a handful here and there. It is a wonderful feeling and any public person who says differently is lying. It makes me feel as if I am connecting with people. I have been travelling and seeing new cities and countries and it has been a real blessing. My main goal, however, is to be nice. I think with this (fame), you can get a big head and start demanding things and treating people rudely and I just want to be a nice person,” he says.
Because his show is filmed at his home in Chicago, Mauro has been able to stay close to his family which, he says, is what keeps him centred.
“You can see my four-and-a-half-year-old son Lorenzo on the show quite a bit as well as my wife Sarah and my dad, my mum and my three siblings, my aunts and cousins ...” he says, trailing off. “That’s the beauty of the show. The Food Network has embraced not only me, but my family and my neighbourhood! My whole family lives within a mile radius of me and so there is always a new person to cast on the show. It’s politics, I tell you. They are all asking me when their turn to be on is. But, no, I love them all and if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am,” he says.
At the press event in Kuala Lumpur, Mauro conducted a workshop with a select group of the media where he cooked and constructed a beef brisket sandwich with a cranberry and nut carrot slaw. The affable chef entertained the group (and posed for photographs as he cooked) while guiding the journalists who were eager to learn a thing or two from the Sandwich King.
On his maiden trip to Malaysia, Mauro says he has developed multiple ideas for new sandwiches using local flavours and ingredients. Top of the list is local delicacy, beef rendang.
“I’ve been here three days and I think I have 50 ideas already. I love your rendang which is sort of like the brisket: soft, succulent and full of flavour. I’m already thinking of ways I can incorporate that into a sandwich,” he says.
With a new book due out soon, we might just see a Malaysian-inspired sandwich from Mauro pretty soon.
Sign up for Kuali's July 20 baking workshop if you want to learn how to make Foccacia Bread, Baked Cheese Cake and Shortbread.
Chef Don Yong from the Malaysian Institute of Baking will be demonstrating techniques and giving tips on how to concoct cookie and cake creations as well as warm, fluffy bread.
It only costs RM100 to join each workshop. Besides having the opportunity to bring home your own creations, participants will also receive a recipe booklet, a goodie bag and the chance to win baking and cooking books.
Interested? All you have to do is register online, wait for a seat confirmation, make payment and come to the workshop. To register, go to www.kuali.com.