Adam Richman seeks out America’s best sandwich

Adam Richman’s face is mere inches away from a toaster oven in the bustling kitchen of Kroll’s West, the 70-year-old, go-to food spot for Green Bay Packer fans and “butter burger” lovers that sits in the shadow of the legendary Lambeau Field. But it’s not the burger he’s after on this late April afternoon — it’s the beloved Wisconsin eatery’s prime rib sandwich, a beefy monstrosity accented with a mélange of peppers and onions and a cup of rich au jus.

As Cheryl Dorner, the folksy restaurant’s charming manager — and Richman’s costar for this segment of his new Travel Channel series Adam Richman’s Best Sandwich in America — pulls a generously buttered torpedo of a roll from the toaster directly past his nose, her famous guest grins from ear to ear.

Having spent years tracking down America’s quirkiest joints and gut-busting food challenges for his hugely popular Man v. Food franchise, Richman came up with his search for “the best thing since sliced bread on sliced bread” while sitting in an airport.

“Every culture has a sandwich,” he says of the epiphany. “From rich to poor, male to female, vegetarian to carnivore, there’s a sandwich. And being that I’ve tried so many through other filming or my own travels — and so many of these have a degree of nationally iconic status in their own right — I thought it would be fun to take people along on a journey for me to find my absolute favorite sandwich in the country.”

To select — and then narrow — the field, the avid sports fan says he approached the task like a college hoops tournament. Ten regions, three sandwiches per region (some on the recommendation of famous friends) and one winner from each area. The 10 regional champs, plus two fan-selected wild cards, will duke it out for the “best sandwich” title in a live one-hour special.

RELATED: Adam Richman’s Best Sandwich in America — the sandwich list!

To give himself a template for judging the entrants, Richman devised a rating system he calls the BITE scale. “It’s an acronym for B-bread, I-interior, T-taste and E-eating experience,” he explains. “We run every sandwich through the BITE scale so that immediately we create a vocabulary for evaluating a sandwich — because I don’t know how I would create a numeric rank. ‘The tuna melt was delicious! I give it an 86!’ It sounds so preposterous. It’s not like figure skating — ‘Ooh! The Hungarian judge wasn’t a fan of the cheddar!’”

It’s that trademark sense of humor that has made Richman a multigenerational favorite — as evidenced by the starstruck fans that have gathered at the lunch counter to peer at their hero. And though he is clearly worn out, Richman poses for photos for everyone who asks, including a bold little boy in a karate T-shirt holding out a baseball and a pretty girl fretting that her cellphone will conk out before she can snap the pic.

“The attitude is gratitude,” Richman says, “and it always has been.”

A few days before watching the series film in Green Bay, I asked Richman more about Best Sandwiches, the legacy of Man v. Food, who does his wardrobe — and why he’d really prefer you not put him in a headlock. Ever.

Channel Guide Magazine: The new series spotlights sandwiches — a food item for which every nationality, every country, every region, every city, most restaurants and possibly every person on Earth has a signature incarnation. I’m going to take a stab that this is very much the appeal — and also very much the challenge — of putting together this show. So where did you start?

Adam Richman: I had this idea while sitting at an airport gate. As Man v. Food came to a close and we were thinking about the next project, I had been approached with so many heady, heady concepts, and the thing that I loved about Man v. Food was that it actually imparted usable real world wisdom in terms of where to eat and what to do and places to go and things that were affordable and accessible and interesting.

And like you said, every culture has a sandwich, so it’s again a chance to sort of spotlight the city, the people of the city and the traditions of the city using an iconic, popular food as the point of departure.

CGM: Since you have covered so much culinary territory in your televised adventures — and there’s virtually no way you can leave out icons like Katz’s and Primanti Brothers in seeking out the best sandwiches in the country — how many places that we see on the show will be familiar to your loyal viewers and how much is new territory?

AR:  I would say that audiences will probably recognize … 40 percent, maybe? Because I wanted some places to seem at once familiar and recognizable as much I also wanted to show my own favorites. On Man Vs. Food, it was just me showing these great places I found through research. But there’s a personal element to this, because these are some places that I’ve gone that I love. These are my picks. And what’s great is when I do try something for the first time, the audience comes along with me.

CGM: Sounds like fun — both to make and to watch.

AR: It’s totally fun, I promise. I have to say, I’m a very, very harsh critic of myself, of the work my team does — not in a negative way, but I really try to scrutinize everything right down to the edits and stuff. And we just so enjoy it. We laugh and we dig and we try to find the right balance of information and fun and exploration. And like you said, people know sandwiches. People recognize it. It’s not something that you have to look up on Wikipedia and find out what’s a gastric? What’s an emulsion?

It’s a sandwich! The best thing on sliced bread since sliced bread!

One of the things about Man v. Food that I was always proud of was that restaurants that we went to were affordable and accessible. We weren’t saying that the next great eating destination was Monte Carlo or Gstaad or Baraya — we were in Pittsburgh and  Oklahoma City and Sarasota and I loved that. I love that I not only get to celebrate a country that’s very near and dear to me, but it’s allowed me to follow my dreams.

CGM: Looking through the list, I see that there are no hot dogs, no sausages, no wraps — purely sandwiches, correct?

AR: I wanted it to basically be two slices of bread and something in the middle — or possibly something in a roll or a hoagie bun. But I think once you bring in sausages, then that’s a whole different type of competition, because there are so many strata within it. Hot dogs — so many strata within that. The burger is its own thing now. Yes, once it was the hamburger sandwich, but now there are burger bashes and burger bars and you could do a show alone on the cheeseburger, let alone the hamburger because there are so many different variants.

I wanted to make sure that this put everything on a relatively level playing field. And for me, the idea of doing sandwiches and avoiding wraps and avoiding pitas helps keeping the waters from getting too muddied. We even have a criterion of nothing open-faced. I want something for my best sandwich in America that’s hand-held and possibly portable and has just a great, sort of classic sandwich identity.

Because again, the richest family in the world can be making a sandwich right now that’s, like, Diamond Ranch roast beef and pâté on a pain de mie, and then somewhere working class they’re making a great tuna sandwich with Wonder Bread — and one is no less valid than the other. One is no less delicious than the other, you know what I mean?

And I love the idea of food as language. I always have, and I think that “sandwich” is this one analog — whether it’s gyros or torta or shwarma or falafel or whatever it is — where there’s some variant that spans the gamut and actually speaks to your cultural identity.

I love that stuff. I love that this kind of classic art form or meal form still exists and exists in so many variations.

CGM: Speaking of variations, for a while, the Travel Channel web site was taking reader entries and suggestions, and there was some pretty wild stuff on there. I don’t think Cap’n Crunch belongs on a sandwich. Am I wrong?

AR: I’m 100 percent behind you. I went to a place one time where they used that as the breading on chicken tenders, too. We never really had sugared cereals in my house, so that was something I could only have at summer camp or at someone else’s house — and I find it waxy. I find that when you eat that, it actually leaves a fatty, waxy residue in your mouth. It’s arguably the worst.

It’s how I feel about cream cheese or fruit in sushi. Gummy bears on frozen yogurt. Ya gotta draw the line somewhere!

CGM: I was flabbergasted to find out that you actually had to audition for Man v. Food. You seem tailor made for the show and the experience … and those that have followed. 

AR:  I launched myself at it because, once I saw in the breakdown what they were looking for, I knew that these were traits that I possessed: regional culinary knowledge, camera comportment, kitchen experience … and an appetite.

I never did a food challenge before the first one I did for the show. Chicago is one of the first episodes we shot and I didn’t talk at all — I just beefed it through these three sandwiches. And the executive producer at the time —who is now my co-executive producer — said, “You know, we would rather have you lose the challenge, but make entertaining TV and talk to us.” And for me, that is the truth. To paraphrase Hamlet: The readiness is all. Whether  I won or lost the challenge is negligible. The idea is showcasing this wonderfully extreme culinary event that you could only do when you’re visiting this city.

This isn’t a lifestyle choice; I’m not advocating 72 oz. steaks as a weekly regimen. But you go to Amarillo and they pick you up in that big limo with the cow horns on it and they take you down to this place and you eat the steak and there is hotel room right there, so you can go pass out — it’s just such a story to tell!

So I consider myself very, very fortunate. I don’t possess enough hubris to say, “Why, yes, they found me and I was perfect!” I got better. I learned how to everything better as I did it — how to do voiceovers, how to do host wraps, how to break the fourth wall and involve the camera. I think that my genuine love of the medium and my enthusiasm for being able to do what I do and be gainfully employed for it, that’s what has sealed the deal for myself experientially and for my viewers.

CGM: Now that you have amassed such a following, can you actually go into a restaurant when you aren’t filming something and eat peacefully without gathering half the establishment to see what you’re eating and how big it is and how fast you will eat it and trying to cheer you on?

AR:  Not too much cheering me on or even a crowd per se, but it’s 60-40, depending upon the restaurant. Generally speaking, when I go into any type of food establishment, someone will say something — more often than not, very positive.

I was at a fine dining establishment with my mom for her birthday — I was taking her to a Broadway show and took her a rather fancy Italian restaurant beforehand — and there was a group of people on a office meal, very clearly an expense-account sort of meal. My mom went to the restroom and this guy who looked like the CEO or CFO comes over with the menu and said, “So are you going to eat one of everything?” I was like, “No sir, I’m just taking my Mom out for her birthday.”

At first I used to get my hackles up — but I’m a realist, I’m a pragmatist and no one goes into this profession hoping not to be successful. And as long as things are not said in an insulting manner or things are not said in a personal or grotesque manner  — perhaps a biological-function sort of a question — then I’m not going to alienate a fan. Whatever they do, it means that they watch the show — and that means a lot to me. Because I couldn’t afford cable until I got on cable. And the fact that anyone wants to spend a half-hour with me when there are 900 other stations, then they’re deserving of a bit of respect.

CGM: To that end, you do come off as the son/big brother/best friend/boyfriend that everyone would love to have, so your fan base pretty much encompasses … everyone. And I’d imagine that everyone who has seen you on TV assumes they know you. How do you cope with being Everybody’s Adam?

AR: That’s the double-edged sword of it, right? Because accessibility is the lynchpin of hosting.

If I ever did the Esquire “What I’ve Learned” thing, I’d say the way to be a good host is to be a good guest. No two ways about it. The better a guest you are, the better a host you are, because the more deferential and informed you are, the more the audience can get further into information, the location and so on.

That said, I’m an only child. I like my personal space. I live alone. I’m still from Brooklyn, so I’m still not used to people grabbing me or slapping my back or putting me in a headlock or stuff like that. I have a lot of male friends, so there is a lot of stone busting that comes along with that — but it’s tough because a lot of times there is a false sense of familiarity. And sometimes I am in the disposition where I get it and I embrace it and I celebrate it. But at other times …

I had a family member in the hospital recently and I went down for a cup of coffee and I was just kind of processing this and I just really didn’t want to be jostled about and slapped on the back when I’m worried about someone having major surgery, you know what I mean? So it’s a slippery slope. But if the choice is to have that sort of affinity and enthusiasm from my fans, I am happy to have that. And that’s not just because I am speaking to a reporter.

If anyone on TV thinks that they are more than their fans or better than their fans, I think that karma and reality will adjust that really quickly.

CGM: Then allow me to be a fan instead of a reporter for a moment: I’m kind of obsessed with your collection of jackets and t-shirts, so please tell me your sartorial style for Best Sandwiches has not changed too much. 

AR [laughing]:  I switched it up a little bit.

For Man v. Food, I used to do restaurant t-shirts or I would find an analog for the type of food I’d be eating or for that city. And then I would attempt to do the sort of military-inspired jackets with the epaulets and the Nehru collar and stuff like that. I have actually gotten some pretty amazing photos of young fans of mine — and I’ve got to tell you, nothing means more to me than when I get mail or a picture drawn of me from a little kid. And I mean that in earnest. That is the absolute best, because there is no filter there.

I am a bit of a clotheshorse. My stepmom worked in fashion for several decades. So I change it up. Plaid shirts and jeans. Works shirts. What I tend to do now is to sort of deliberately make a significant break — make it somewhat more stylish, but I’m not Karl Lagerfeld eating a French dip.

I also tend to dress for the city to some degree. For example, while filming in Portland — the hippest of the hip in Portland, Ore. — I made sure I did, like, a gingham shirt, a skinny tie, a vest that was kind of like a rumpled blazer. And, you know, the tie is loose — I still gotta be me, but that is part of my style.

I don’t have a wardrobe person. These are my wardrobe choices. So I’ll also do a henley and a jacket. Or a V-neck shirt and a jacket. In Pittsburgh, I just wore a nice sweater.

I’m 40 pounds lighter than when I finished Man v. Food and I’m very proud of that, so, hey, if you got it you flaunt it [laughs]. I keep it in the realm of masculine style. If I do a blazer, it’s usually unstructured. You’re not going to find me doing something that is so, so, so far afield.

In Savannah, I found this great jacket at an outlet, like a canvas, khaki jacket, and did that with a rep tie and jeans and looked like a schoolboy. I don’t really do a lot of ties — maybe 2 or 3 times.

But I wanted to make a little bit of a break just because it’s not so much Adam the food-challenge-taker-on-er guy — but just Adam, just like us all — lover of sandwiches who has tried a lot of ‘em and is on a quest to find the best and I want to take you with me!

Adam Richman’s Best Sandwich in America premieres Wednesday, June 6 at 9/8CT on Travel Channel.

Photos: @2012 Scripps Network

About Lori Acken

Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.
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