Food & Drink

We Challenged Top Chefs to Make Epic Sandwiches. Here’s What We Learned.

It turns out livermush is actually pretty good, pickled okra is just as good as pickles, and potato chips are the ticket to textural success

Headshots of eight people
Top row from left: Ricky Moore, Joy Wilson, Amethyst Ganaway, and Eddie Hernandez. Bottom row from left: Alyssa Maute Smith, Sunny Gerhart, Shuai Wang, and Paola Velez.

“A sandwich is a sandwich is a sandwich,” says Durham chef Ricky Moore. “It doesn’t have to be fancy—just a great vehicle and the best ingredients you can get.” That was just one nugget of wisdom from the culinary experts who whirled through the G&G offices during the Charleston Wine and Food festival to compete in a sandwich-making challenge that made us rethink everything we thought we knew about piling things between two slices of bread. 

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Presented with a table packed with deli meats, cheeses, condiments, fried oysters, chicken, shrimp, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, okra, and more, the chefs were limited only by a three-minute timer, white bread, and their imaginations. Oh, and they had to incorporate at least one “wildcard” ingredient—think livermush, pickled eggs, baked beans, and marshmallows—just to keep things interesting.

The results blew us away. Shuai Wang took our top overall prize with a towering, deli-inspired stacker featuring livermush, ham, turkey, cheese, pickles, onions, lettuce, and potato chips. A close second was Amethyst Ganaway’s crunchy hot honey and peach-laden creation featuring fried green tomato and pimento cheese. The most aesthetically pleasing sammy was Houston baker Joy Wilson’s take on traditional bologna, complete with trimmed-off crusts. Most creative went to Moore’s surprising layering of livermush, pickled okra, and peaches.

We also ate every single bite of Paola Velez’s version of a BLT, leveled up with crunchy pecans and hot honey; of Eddie Hernadez’s barbecue sauce, baked bean, and collard green bologna sandwich; of Food and Wine director Alyssa Maute Smith’s crunchy beach-day deli classic…and of New Orleans native Sunny Gerhart’s on-the-fly muffuletta, which taught us that we love a combination of pickles, pickled okra, and pickled jalapeños. 

There was some lamenting afterward—Hernandez even went home and remade his, this time with buttered and toasted bread and fried bologna. Ganaway wished she had added lettuce for crunch and color, and Gerhart regretted his lack of mustard. But it’s safe to say that after watching each of them work, we’ll never make boring sandwiches again. 

Here are a few more specific takeaways: 

Build around your protein. 

Hernandez applies the same logic he brings to taco creation to sandwiches: Choose your meat first, then build from there. For the G&G challenge, that meant choosing baked beans to complement bologna. Smith went for ham—which meant cheese, mustard, and a whole lot of pickles to boot. 

Lean on tried-and-true flavor pairings.

“There are things that are common denominators on a palate,” Moore says. For example, he knew that sagey dressing and cranberry sauce pair well, so the same would probably apply to livermush (also sagey) and peach. 

Don’t be stingy with your mayonnaise. 

“You need enough mayo to squeeze out of the sandwich when you take a bite,” Wilson says. Plus, mayonnaise generally plays well with other ingredients—Hernandez mixed his with barbecue sauce to make the perfect spread. And the chefs universally implore: Make sure you’re using Duke’s

Treat your veggies right. 

Velez likes to salt her tomatoes and set them aside to bring out a little moisture before adding them to her sandwich, a clever hack for avoiding sogginess. Moore is particular about his onions. “They need to be thinly sliced and even; if they are uneven it changes the dynamic of the dish.” 

Think beyond pickles. 

Dill or bread-and-butter pickles aren’t the only way to add tang to a sandwich. Pickled jalapeños do the trick, too, plus add some kick. The chefs’ favorite substitute, though, was pickled okra, sliced longways. 

Make sure every bite is the same. 

That starts with your sauce. As Velez explained while carefully spreading her mayonnaise to each corner of the bread, “you gotta coat every little bit like a canvas.” The same logic applies to the other ingredients—Wang layered his deli meats to make sure every bite had equal parts turkey and ham, then plopped four pickles down, one for each corner.

Think about texture, aka potato chips are your friend. 

Wang scrunched up his deli meats to create ripply, textural folds (“you can’t just slap it flat”). Chips were an especially popular addition to offset the softness of the white bread, and suffice it to say we are now convinced they belong on almost any sandwich. In Gerhart’s words, as he reached for Zapps to finish off his muffuletta, “Chips add that crunch and take it over the top.” 

The only real rule of sandwich making is to have fun and make something you love.

At the end of day, the real joy of the exercise came from trying unexpected ingredient combinations that reflected the tastes of the chefs. Here are some parting words from Ganaway, who joked that she likes to simply pile all the things that taste good on a piece of bread: “It’s not about y’all. It’s about me, and what I like.”

Thank you to all the chefs—plus Charleston Wine and Food director Alyssa Maute Smith—who came to our offices and did all the crazy things we asked: 

Amethyst Ganaway, Charleston, South Carolina 

Sunny Gerhart, Olivero and St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar, Wilmington and Raleigh, North Carolina

Eddie Hernandez, Taqueria del Sol, Atlanta

Ricky Moore, Saltbox Seafood Joint in Durham, North Carolina 

Paola Velez, New York City

Joy Wilson, Houston

Shuai Wang, Jackrabbit Filly and King BBQ, Charleston, South Carolina

But Wait, There’s More…

Watch chef Ricky Moore complete his sandwich challenge below, and stay tuned for more videos showcasing the other chefs at work.