Meet the chef: Mike Barbera

This year more than ever, winter-weary chefs and diners have high hopes that spring’s asparagus, strawberries and tender greens will soon appear on menus. To get out of the root-vegetable rut, Mike Barbera, director of food and beverage for ’wichcraft, the 16-unit artisan sandwich concept founded by Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio and partners, puts out spring teasers with ingredient-driven daily specials.

“As soon as a seasonal fruit or vegetable becomes available, I’ll find a creative way to put it in a sandwich,” says Barbera, who earned his cred in fine-dining kitchens. He gives the example of ‘wichcraft’s adaptable breakfast frittata sandwich—the first ramps, fava beans or asparagus of the season can easily be incorporated into the egg mixture. “Then once that variety of seasonal produce starts arriving in greater volume, I can make it part of a permanent menu item.”

Q: What was your goal in developing ’wichcraft’s spring menu?
I want to put seasonal ingredients into every sandwich and salad. Marinated vegetables with roasted meats are a winning combination. For example, I use an old family recipe to make pickled green tomatoes; they’re marinated in vinegar, salt, garlic and herbs then soaked in olive oil. I layer these on a smoked brisket sandwich. Later in the season, I’ll use ripe, red tomatoes on our signature BLT.

Q: Do you source your fresh produce and other ingredients from certain suppliers?
During the growing season, we work as much as possible with local farms and vendors. Eckerton Hill Farm in Pennsylvania grows all our tomatoes. We get 50 flats a week from them during the summer. We have similar deals for squash, celery, red onions and other crops. We tell our farmer friends how much we’ll need to buy and promise them volume.  It works out really well for the farms; we’ve helped their businesses grow. We also have a longstanding wholesale partnership with GrowNYC, the nonprofit that operates New York City’s Union Square Greenmarket.

And I’m currently trying out a supplier of eggs, chickens and milk located in Sullivan County, New York.

Of course, in the winter, we have to reach out further. More of our produce comes from out West and down South, and we buy from three to four larger distributors. But one of our local farmers stored 800 pounds of squash for us that he harvested in the fall. We used it all winter in one of our pressed sandwiches.

Q: How else do you differentiate your sandwich menu?
Innovative flavor combinations are a ’wichcraft signature. Our Chopped Chickpeas sandwich is layered with housemade lemon confit, roasted peppers and green olives, while the Roasted Turkey sandwich gets onion relish and aioli. All our condiments are made from scratch at our central commissary and delivered daily to each location. The bread is also key; it comes from Pain D’Avignon, an artisan producer. We make an effort to pair specific breads and fillings to enhance the sandwich’s flavor profile and texture. That chickpea sandwich goes on country bread; the turkey, on a ciabatta roll; and our Heritage Smoked Ham sandwich on grilled cranberry pecan bread.


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