Wicked Wichcraft: 'wichcraft by Tom Colicchio [cookbook review]
In the world of cookbook publishing, there is something of an unspoken understanding about what sorts of cookbooks don't work. If you'd like to see your name on a book cover, the rule goes, don't pitch a recipe collection centered around any of a few specific topics — breakfast, burgers, and sandwiches. So sayeth the conventional wisdom: they just won't sell.
The problem with all three sorts of cookbooks — though here we'll deal with sandwiches in particular — is that they're simultaneously too easy and too hard. The easy side is, well, easy to see: Open deli packet, remove turkey, place on bread. No one needs a cookbook for that. And then over the on the other side, the non-easy sandwiches require an extraordinary amount of effort. Not, perhaps, much more effort than the average home cook might expend for for a dinner party, or even a slightly-nicer-than-usual Tuesday. But definitely, assuredly, too much for the sort of food that we don't like to think of as requiring effort.
Sandwiches aren't supposed to involve four subrecipes, take two weeks' lead time to prep, and dirty half a dozen pans. They're supposed to be quick food, prepped fast and eaten on the go. So it's interesting to me that Tom Colicchio's 'wichcraft: Craft a sandwich into a meal — and a meal into a sandwich (buy at Amazon), a book recipes drawn straight from the kitchen of his mini-empire of 'wichcraft sandwich restaurants, is an unadulterated, unapologetic celebration of the seventeen-step sandwich.
That this book exists at all — let alone that its recipes aren't dumbed down to "place stuff between bread; switch up contents" — is something for which we can thank Colicchio's Top Chef-borne fame. And that fame is most likely going to propel 'wichcraft to heretofore unseen heights of sandwich-cookbook sales. Which, and let's get this out of the way here, it completely deserves. This is a smart, straightforward, lushly photographed book with beautiful production values resting on the foundation of an eminently subscribable culinary philosophy. This book — as a chronicle of the 'wichcraft restaurants, as a Tom Colicchio product — is going to sell, sell, sell. But what I wonder is how many people, having bought it, will actually cook out of it.
It's not that cookbooks from which you're not supposed to cook are bad. (On the contrary, we like them a lot 'round these parts.) But it's a little bit of a head-scratcher for a book written by perhaps the best-known celebrity chef in America, positioning itself as a fun, breezy sandwich collection, to turn out to be almost insurmountably complex. In not acknowledging this up front, Colicchio does himself a disservice: what he should be doing here is proudly (and explicitly) waving the flag for the humble sandwich to be recategorized as not-so-humble — it's a multicourse meal in a handheld package, just as deserving of sweat, labor, and respect as the kind of dinner served on a plate instead of a bun.
A question of 'why'
Colicchio opens 'wichcraft with an introduction that asks "why a sandwich cookbook?" but he doesn't really give us an answer. What he does address is the very different question "why a sandwich restaurant?" The answer we get is something essentially along the lines of "who doesn't love sandwiches?!" But 'wichcraft's very existence bears a little more examination: In many ways the sandwich stands that quickly wormed their way into every Manhattan office neighborhood are the culinary opposite of what Colicchio serves up at his flagship restaurant, Craft.
At Craft, diners pay through the nose for aggressively pared-down presentations of, say, an unadorned shoulder of lamb, worth its hefty price tag because of the animal's impeccable pedigree and the fact that the guy in the kitchen roasting your meat is doing so with a finesse and precision you could never approximate at home. A la carte, you could accompany your meat with a small portion of perfect tournades of carrot, or a small pile of sauteed hedgehog mushrooms.
As an entity, a sandwich is the exact opposite of the kind of culinary solipsism that Craft's single-item menu promotes. Sandwiches aren't one-note songs, their success is defined by harmony — the more parts melding beautifully into a symphonic whole, the more ebullient the experience of eating it. And a 'wichcraft creation contains a staggering number of ingredients — for nine bucks at one of the sandwich stands, you'll get more moving parts than you would in a fifty-dollar Craft entree. 'wichcraft gave Colicchio the chance to flex a different, more accessible culinary muscle than he'd been showing off with the white tablecloths, and its cookbook is ostensibly an easier way to connect with his cuisine.
While Colicchio's genius for points and counterpoints of flavor and texture is evident in every recipe in the book, the complexity that makes these sandwiches great is the same thing that will put off many home cooks. Not a single one of these is easy: even the PBJ calls for making rhubarb jelly, something you'll have to start making at least two days ahead of when you plan to serve the sandwich. (Colicchio does, to his credit, save us the indignity of grinding our own peanut butter.) Of the seven ingredients called for in the chopped chickpeas sandwich (page 59), three are subrecipes, calling for 27 total ingredients of their own, and requiring at least three days' lead time. Isn't this sort of thing the reason we leave this stuff to restaurants in the first place?
If you're marveling at this complexity, it comes unlocked in that whole "why a sandwich restaurant?" section. Colicchio is talking about the proverbial Thanksgiving leftover sandwich — roasted turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potato, all on leftover crusty bread. What makes that sandwich so great? It's that it's not, actually, a sandwich: It's an entire meal, each part cooked separately, destroying the kitchen, overflowing the dishwasher. Each of 'wichcraft's sandwiches is at its heart a Thanksgiving sandwich: each part made separately, each part asking for patience, technique, a nicely padded grocery budget, maybe a pinch of love.
But they're so freaking delicious
The thing is, on a certain level, it works: these sandwiches are mind-bogglingly amazing. I have literally never in my life had a better lunch than 'wichcraft's inspired concatenation of marinated white anchovy, soft-cooked egg, roasted onions, salsa verde, and frisee. Or maybe it was the fried squid po' boy with avocado and black chile oil. Or the pastrami with sauerkraut, gruyere, and whole-grain mustard on toothsome rye?
Whichever it was, though, it's important to note that I hadn't made it myself. I'd paid the nice people at one of the myriad 'wichcraft locations to put it together for me, my ten bucks going to offset the lemon confit that had been marinating for three weeks, the pork butts smoking, the mozzarella being hand-pulled at the central 'wichcraft commissary hidden in some secret magical back room in Manhattan. What enables sandwiches of this epic complexity is an economy of scale, which is something the home cook rarely has.
Of course, unless the home cook in question is in New York, San Francisco, or Las Vegas, another thing he or she is unlikely to have is easy access to a 'wichcraft counter. It's at that point where this book's real culinary purpose gets to shine: that whole thing that Colicchio should have said explicitly, the giant task of trying to redefine the very way we think about sandwiches. He's trying to say, hey, sure, there are those bullshit baloney-and-mayo wonderbread jobs, and those certainly don't deserve cookbooks. But sandwiches like these — texturally harmonious, deeply flavored, effortful, rewarding — these deserve the effort. Colicchio is, with surprising success, trying to sell us on the idea that sandwich cookbooks can sell.