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Fresh Meat: Smallwares Chef Johanna Ware

Ware is on the hunt for a Portland sandwich she won't throw across the room.

Editor's note: Welcome to Fresh Meat, in which Portland comic Amy Miller interviews newcomers about their hopes and dreams and the foodstuffs from their native lands that Portland fails to prepare properly. This week Miller talks with Smallwares chef and owner Johanna Ware, who is originally from Chicago. 

Sitting down with Johanna Ware in her Beaumont restaurant Smallwares (Willamette Week's 2012 restaurant of the year runner-up), it's clear that while I am totally welcome, we'll be wrapping up soon. She speaks rapidly and sarcastically, with exaggerated hand gestures, talking over me and even herself. We chat about the adjustments each of us has made to Portland's slower pace—Ware was once a chef at New York's famed Momofuku—and how our kvetching often gets stifled by Portland's peer pressure to have a rosy outlook.

After three columns showcasing the feedback (some might say gripes!) of Portland's arrivals from elsewhere, one question seems to come up most often: If you don't like it, why don't you leave? 

Well, we don't leave because it's OK to complain. It's possible to absolutely adore a place and be dissatisfied with specific aspects of it. Complaining connects us to people, makes us human. If you're absolutely content with everything around you, I think that you are boring. 

Bonding with Johanna Ware over our kvetch-withdrawals, I was reminded of a joke by my friend and comedian Sean O'Connor about moving to New York that sort of encapsulates the simultaneous wonder and weariness we can feel in a new city.

"My first week in New York, walking down the street on a beautiful fall day," he said, "a gust of wind blew a used condom in my mouth. And I was like, let's see where this city takes me."

What is Portland's metaphorical "used condom in the mouth" for Johanna Ware? It's sandwiches. She admits she's learned a lot about breaking from convention in Portland when it comes to her unique cuisine. But when it comes to her own lunch, just a basic sandwich will do. If she can find one.

Amy Miller: There's a rumor going around that you're underwhelmed by Portland's heavily lauded sandwich arts.

Johanna Ware: I was drunk at a party last year during Feast and I was like "Fuck Portland sandwiches." I'm from Chicago and I lived and cooked in New York and those are big sandwich cultures. The thing is I don't care about fancy sandwiches. Why does a turkey sandwich have to have cranberry chutney on it in August? And some places in town bake bread for a living and their sandwiches still suck.

There's a huge bread factor here. Thats where I think everyone goes wrong. Too much bread, a lot of stale bread, and things like ciabatta that people don't toast. I love a good chicken salad sandwich and then people put it on brioche and it's like no! And each sandwich is different but in general when you bite through a sandwich it's important that the meat doesn't go out the back. The bread to meat ratio is really important.

Sometimes I want just a really crappy New York bodega sandwich. I want thinly sliced turkey, mayo, shredded lettuce and some sort of bread that's gonna work with that.

What's your ideal chicken salad, and on what kind of bread?

Toasted white bread. I'm a kid from the midwest. That's what I grew up on. My mom makes better sandwiches than I do and I grew up eating a lot of sliced white bread. 

My mom also poaches the chicken breast. And uses Lawry's lemon pepper. But it's also about how big the chicken is cut up. It shouldn't be so shredded that it feels like you're eating tuna salad. But it's a sandwich, so you don't want huge chicken pieces. And then I need celery or something crunchy in it. A little dijon and mayonnaise. Lettuce, tomato, maybe some bacon. And I still put mayonnaise on the bread. I love mayonnaise. I love it. Sometimes I crave mayonnaise before I really want a sandwich.

So you're a big fan of foods called "salad" because everything is swimming in mayonnaise?

Love them. Potato salad, macaroni salad with chunks of cheddar, and mom's egg salad which is just eggs and mayonnaise and salt. Nothing weird. In the midwest we've got ham salad which is just cubed up ham and mayonnaise. 

How do you feel about small chunks of sour green apples?

No! I like a curried chicken salad with apples or grapes but otherwise no. I could see if it was diced small enough, and maybe in chicken salad. But no.

The worst sandwich I've had in Portland had red seedless grapes, mascarpone cheese, and spinach on a French roll. It was bland and mushy, like a salad experiment someone brought to a picnic and then left in the sun all day.

What the hell is that? People want to have that fancy sandwich game and that's fine. You can be fancy but all of the elements still have to be there. There has to be crunch, there has to be salt, acid, and a balance between bread and meat. Don't forget the basics that make things good.

When I grew up there was a deli next to us called Boloney's and I still talk about it. I used to just sit and read their menu. They had sandwiches you could order by half or whole. And that just meant half the meat or all of it. And half you could barely get your mouth around. They had the perfect Dagwood, which was salami, ham, and Thousand Island dressing. Sandwiches need pickles, they need dressings, they need to be wet.

I have a rule with my cooks: Every edge of the bread has to have every element of the sandwich on it. There shouldn't be an empty bread corner showing when you open it up.

And I have all the condiments you can imagine in my fridge. I have salt, mustards, barbecue sauces, dressings, vinegar. If I buy your sandwich and I can't even manage to make it good with what I have in my kitchen, it makes me want to drive back to your shop and throw it in your face.

Have you found a sandwich you like in town?

I like the Italian combo at Bunk. I got a really good cheese steak from Steakadelphia and they had a special sauce I liked.  I want an Italian beef. [Ed: We recommend Bridge City on Woodstock.] There's enough transplants for there to be a demand. When I go home, I have to have a Chicago hot dog and an Italian beef. And I make them myself when the Bears are playing. They're not hard. It's back to the bread problem. It's like a roll you would eat a bratwurst in. But it's hard to find here.

I still don't have a go-to place for a basic sandwich. I haven't found that kaiser roll, turkey, crappy bodega sandwich that I want.

When I was working at Momofuku, when you had the 8 am shift, everyone would have their breakfast at the bodega. One guy would literally get toast and butter. And I'm ham, egg, and cheese on a kaiser. 

I know that Bunk does have that on the menu, and he sourced out a good kaiser roll. I once bought a kaiser roll at Safeway and fantasized about driving back and throwing it at someone.

There's a lot of throwing involved in your sandwich adventures.

I get so angry. Even when you can build your own sandwich and check off what you want, the bread will be awful or it will be bland. How can you have all this shit on a sandwich and it's still bland? I don't get it.

And thanks so much for taking 20 minutes to make my fucking sandwich by the way. The dude at the bodega is making your sandwich while selling cigarettes; why can't we speed this up? I just get so mad.

Anybody who moves to Portland who moved from a big city is going to complain about the pace. I'm an impatient person. Go to the Asian market, Fubonn, and watch the checkout people. They are fast as shit, they don't care who you are, they don't wanna know how well your day is going, they don't care what the fuck you're making for dinner. And then go to New Seasons and it's like yep, I am making a steak tonight. I know you're friendly but please talk and work. 

On the road or in a pinch, will you eat at Subway?

I love Subway. I almost went yesterday. And I get everything. Salt, pepper, oil and vinegar. If there's ever an option for everything, I will always say yes. The works. Of course. I would never say no to anything. I don't even care what it is. Just give me the works. I'll really eat any fast food. I had McDonald's last night at 2 a.m.

Although it's funny when people turn in resumes and say they were a sandwich artist. It's like people who work at Dunkin Donuts putting “barista” on their resume. 

What is the Portland food item? Like if a native Portlander moved away, what's that one thing they would really miss? Their Italian beef, their Mission burrito, their Chicago dog. 

I don't know. I could name so many quintessential Chicago or New York items and I can't name one for Portland. I guess the farm-to-table movement. It's just a young city. When I moved back there wasn't anything that I was dying to have. I can live without a Voodoo donut. When you go to New York, it's like this pizza place has been here for 70 years or you go to the South and know which barbecue place has been there forever, and there aren't a lot of things like that here—that one sandwich shop that's been there for 75 years.

I feel like what started as a Portland specialty has been somewhat played out—all the farm-to-table shit. I don't want to eat a charcuterie board every time I have dinner. 

OK then. Given a full fridge of food and all the condiments of your dreams, what's your ideal sandwich?

It's a toss-up between ham and turkey. I'd say turkey and Muenster is one of my favorites, with a little bit of ghetto Wishbone Italian dressing on it. Lettuce, tomato, red onion. I'm OK with a whole leaf and not shredded lettuce, but I like iceberg. Salt and pepper. And I love pickles and pepperoncinis. Mayonnaise for sure on both sides.  I love mayo.