Max Halley is widely recognised as the UK’s King of Sandwiches, having revolutionised the outlook of both the public and the industry on how we can imaginatively and mouth-wateringly upgrade the nation’s most-eaten, but oft underestimated meal. Since opening Max’s Sandwich Shop in Stroud Green in 2014, he has written a Sunday Times top-10 bestselling book on the subject and brought sandwiches to the fore on TV and across the printed media. Max also happens to be a very contented customer of the Market, as we found out when we chatted to him recently
Arguably most famous for its Ham, Egg & Chips sandwich and with Max quoted on its website as saying his Gravy Mayonnaise is what he’ll go to his grave most proud of, it would be easy to assume that fresh produce is not front and centre of the menu at Max’s Sandwich Shop.
To assume, as they say, makes an ass out of u and me, as this could not be further from the truth. A flick through the menu reveals just how big an influence fruit, vegetables and herbs have on the make-up of Max’s incredibly creative concoctions. Everything is jam-packed full of ingredients included deliberately by Max to complement each other and “maximise the deliciousness”.
It’s fair to say that this isn’t your run- of-the-mill sandwich emporium. The quality of the fayre at Max’s restaurant is masked a little by a fun façade and a laid back approach, says the man himself. “The truth of my sandwich shop is that because it uses the word ‘sandwich’ in its name, everyone underestimates the amount of cooking involved in the creation of those fillings. We’re not buying in salsas or sauces, we’re not buying in our meat already cooked – we’re not a deli, we’re a restaurant. Everything is made in-house and if it isn’t meat, it is made from stuff supplied by New Covent Garden Market,” he says.
The sandwiches are driven by deliciousness first and only then is every other factor taken into account, he adds. “All of our meat glazes are the same standard you would have in a high-end restaurant and they all involve fruit and veg from the market. We make our own chips and crisps, so we buy a vast amount of potatoes. We use cassava to make crisps too. I love cassava – it has double the starch content of a potato, so it makes an extraordinarily crunchy crisp.
“Our most popular vegetarian sandwich contains pickled spring rolls, which means we buy an enormous number of carrots, chilis, cucumbers and beansprouts. We make a huge amount of pickles for 90% of our meat glazes, for which we buy loads more carrots and cucumbers, as well as onions and celery but then we also have a lasagne sandwich for which we pickle mirepoix.”
Max’s sandwiches involve plenty of herbs too. “The shop may only have 28 seats, but it’s doing more than a thousand covers a week,” he explains. “So we are buying parsley, mint and dill in enormous quantities, to provide the herby salad element to the sandwiches. “We buy masses and masses of vegetables of all varieties,” adds Max. “Cassava and potato make up the majority of our crisps, there are herbs in nearly all of our sandwiches and obviously lettuce. I think it’s an abomination when people say that lettuce is the crunchy element of a sandwich – that’s rubbish. Lettuce provides freshness, not crunch. Crisps are crunchy. We buy lettuce for freshness, herbs for aromatics and potatoes for crunchiness.”
Prior to opening his own north London restaurant, Max had had a working relationship with New Covent Garden Market for a decade, through working in other people’s restaurants. He worked at LeCoq, a rotisserie chicken restaurant in Islington, and for the Salt Yard Group for several years, who he said “would I imagine at that time have bought more courgette flowers from NCGM than any other customer!”
He also worked for Arbutus, in Soho, for Anthony Demetre and Will Smith. “I was a mixture of front-of-house and kitchen and I didn’t go to the Market to buy at that time, I just unpacked the vegetables out of the boxes we had delivered,” Max says. However, that built an understanding of the breadth and quality of the offer in Nine Elms and, as soon as he could, Max made himself familiar with NCGM and his own business a customer. “The Market is vast; I’ve never been anywhere that compares to New Covent Garden Market,” he says. “I couldn’t get credit immediately as a new operator, but as soon as I’d built the business up a little bit, I was straight in.
“I buy from Rushton’s The Chefs’ Greengrocers (part of the Thorogoods Group). Basically, I will buy from wherever Ben Canning works because in my opinion he is an absolute hero. He has been brilliant for us and I’ll do anything that he says. “Please quote me on that! He’s the nicest man in the world and he is the most thoughtful, accommodating, brilliant account manager I have ever encountered. He also brings his kids to my sandwich shop, which is so cool.
“Rushton’s provides all of our fresh produce and Ben even sources our flour. Even though that’s not something you might generally expect to source from the Market, we trust Rushton’s to source the best for us. We make all of our own bread too – we don’t have a sign up telling everyone that because we’re quite a serious restaurant masquerading as a silly sandwich shop and I’m quite happy with that.
“We get a delivery five days a week. I do occasionally come to the Market, most often to look for watermelons because I absolutely love watermelons. In fact, I’ve had many meetings with Ben when what we’ve mainly done is discuss the world’s best watermelons, which in my opinion are from Sorrento in Italy, just so you know!”
Max Halley has done large-scale media (and social media) campaigns for brands as diverse as, Tabasco, Monkey 47, Gaviscon and Branston Pickle, made a series called ‘The Sandwich Show’ for VICE/Munchies, in which he travelled the UK to find inspiration for a new sandwich to put on his menu. He is also the sandwich and condiment expert on Channel 4’s popular Sunday Brunch.
At Rushton’s The Chefs’ Greengrocer, Ben Canning has been dealing with Max for some years now. He says Max is “challenging and demanding in what he expects and requires and he takes quality, humble ingredients and creates meals that are much more than the sum of their individual parts”.
The products that Rushton’s sources are very much driven by customer requirements and the business has evolved its offer to meet the challenges and demands of customers like Max. “Most of the products we sell have a story behind them,” explains Ben. “Either a specific customer wants it and we find it, or we think a specific customer will want it, so we source it.
“I love working with Max, as well as Tom, Dre and James in his team. They are very consistent with their ordering and they’re one of our many customers that orders pretty much everything fresh, dry store, chilled and frozen from us. On top of that though, they are always looking for new products to improve their sandwiches. We began buying Shipton Mill Organic No. 4 flour specifically for Max’s bread, for example, and now we have several more customers who buy that from us. That’s also true for the brands of gherkins, preserved black beans and Gochujang Korean bean paste he prefers.
“The bottom line is that we’re here for our customers when they need something. We’ve looked at some products for Max as part of his menu development too and while some of the products he has asked us to source for him are no longer on his menu, we still stock them for other customers.”
If Ben is Max’s hero at Rushton’s, then the compliment is well and truly returned when Ben talks about the sandwich shop. “Max might call it a ‘silly sandwich shop’, but I can assure everyone that what you get is more than a sandwich, it’s a full meal. My boys love it and it has totally changed their perception of sandwiches. They now look for the optimum combination of flavours in their sandwiches and build in Max’s six crucial elements – hot, cold, sweet, sour, soft and crunchy. If I ever go there in the evening, I can’t go home without a sandwich for everyone and if I have customers coming to look around the market, I have to order Max’s sandwiches in because they provide a real wow factor.”
Ham, egg & chips at the casino
On June 1, the Hippodrome Casino in Leicester Square added Max’s sandwich menu into its food offer, spreading the Max’s Sandwich Shop brand to a different audience. “It’s a great, fun place to be involved with,” says Max. “It’s not my kitchen, but I’ve designed the menu and I go in there and tell them ‘you’re not putting enough mayonnaise in that’.
“You do not have to gamble to go there for a sandwich. You can just go there and have a drink and a sandwich. I think it’s nice for people to know they don’t have to go and play roulette, they can just go and play sandwich roulette!”