Johnny Orr

An Interview With The Chef/Owner Of The Relish Sandwich Shops

Laura Marrich
6 min read
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Johnny Orr has been turning people on to gourmet sandwiches, salads and cheeses for well over a year at his casual, yet sophisticated, little sandwich shop in the Northeast Heights. Now, after months of careful preparation, Relish is finally (finally!) open for business at its second location in downtown Albuquerque. I took Chef/Owner Johnny out for a celebratory after-work drink at the Anodyne and made him talk to me about food. He eventually got wise that the small mechanical device on the bar was not a cell phone, but, in fact, a micro-cassette recorder. He was being interviewed.

Are you recording this?

I am. Welcome to the neighborhood!

(laughter) Thank you.

I have a list of questions from my coworkers at the Alibi. … (produces a notebook from purse)

Are you serious?

Yes. OK, No. 1: “Why is your food so expensive?”

Hmmm … well, our food cost is amazingly high. That, plus what we pay our employees, it's really hard to make a profit. Basically, to get high-quality, interesting ingredients, not only is it expensive, but I end up returning 50 percent of it because it's not up to snuff. So don't complain about the price!

No, no, no. It's a valid question given that there's a Quizno's right across the street where we can get a piece of crap sandwich for $4.

Can you really get a piece of crap for $4? I mean, a happy meal from McDonald's is like $6.59 or something like that.

Huh. OK. There's a question here about what your sides are … I have to say that your potato salad is particularly good.

You know, potato salad is like meatloaf—you like what you were raised on, pretty much. After I did the menu, I was looking in the Better Homes cookbook, and it's almost the exact same recipe. There are just five ingredients in there, so it's just simple. It is what it is.

It tastes really fresh, too.

Well, another thing about our sides is that we throw them away every night—we make them fresh every day.

I saw you have a pile free baguettes and sides for the taking after hours.

I've heard that there are bum-baguette fights!

Were they fighting over the baguettes, or were they fighting with them?

I think they were using them as rapiers. (laugher) Which is cool—just as long as the salads don't get thrown at the windows, have a free-for-all!

You must buy your bread fresh every morning?

I do. I pick it up myself from Le Paris Bakery. All our salads are made every day. We do our own mozzarella every day, too.

What involves making mozzarella?

Well, we can't cut our own milk … we buy the curd and go from there.

I hear it's really hard to make completely from scratch.

And smelly! So, our curd gets brought in from Wisconsin and we make it fresh every day. We make as much as we need and we don't refrigerate it—we just throw away any leftovers. It's all the little things like that … using arugula instead of greens, fresh herbs, slicing tomatoes to order.

Any thought about going local and/or organic for your produce?

I used to be a horticulture major, so I've fully wrapped my mind around that. Eventually, I'd love to have a piece of land to grow all our own herbs and vegetables. That way, we could even get a lot of stuff that suppliers here can't get ahold of.

Like what?

Just the other day I was trying to get lemon verbena for a new salad, and I still haven't been able to find it. But I give full props to Boar's Head, B. Riley and Bountiful Cow Cheese Co. in Santa Fe, without whom there'd be no other place that could supply us with what we need—we couldn't do it without them.

My vegetarian at work wants to know what you have to offer vegetarians.

We now have tempeh, which we can substitute for meat. We do the chipotle-rubbed tempeh and a soy-balsamic-marinated tempeh. We have a completely vegetarian Cubano and the vegetarian Reuben is dynamite. We have the Mediterranean sandwich, the mozzarella salad and lots of other salads. We're very vegetarian-friendly.

So what is Tony Nethery doing at Relish—he took over the Heights location while you're Downtown?

He's doing some fun stuff up there. He's doing some dessert sandwiches, which are really awesome.

What's a dessert sandwich?

Right now he's got a baguette that's stuffed with Nutella and Ghirardelli chocolate, which is brushed with olive oil, pressed and then coated with a little bit of sugar. That's really good. He's going to have a fruity sandwich, too. He's gonna start doing more specials and some soups every day. Also, he's a much better manager than I am. (laughter) He's a great manager, and I'm really good at opening places.

Do you have plans to open more at this point?

As far as Uptown goes, we're looking at moving somewhere else in the neighborhood so we can get a beer and wine license. The most exciting thing we have planned is the lounge—a place where you'd want to spend three or four hours at a time with excellent wine and beer and finger foods.

Here's another office question: “Do you plan on offering sandwiches on croissants?”

(hysterical laughter) Who the hell asked that? I'm going to punch them.

I'm not telling you that.

(laugher, thoughtful pause) I love croissants. I would think about it, but the old stereotype of chicken salad and bacon on the croissant kind of draws me away from that. I would lean more towards something that maybe they don't know about like brioche or ciabatta.

All right, I'm almost done. They wanted me to ask you—how did you get into the sandwich business?

It goes back to just relying on bread, cheese and meats—the quality of them speaking for themselves. Once we found the best cheese, the best bread and the best meat, the rest was just wide open to us.

Relish is located at 411 Central NW. Hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and 6 to 11 p.m., Thursday through Saturday. Call 248-0002.

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