Kevin Pang is not shy about eating. He does it for a living.
But even he had to apologize as he continually paused a conversation with chef Sean Hofherr on Wednesday, Nov. 30, to pluck a nibble of Italian beef from its au jus bath.
“I’m sorry. This is so good,” Pang said before suggesting that an extra portion of beef should be included with the sandwich to give diners a bonus bite.
Everyone in the kitchen laughed, but it wasn’t a joke.
Pang, host of America’s Test Kitchen’s podcast “Proof,” and Hofherr, kitchen leader at Northfield’s Hofherr Meat Co., have worked in cahoots on a monthlong secret project to build the world’s best Italian beef sandwich.
The duo first sampled the results of their collaborative efforts on Nov. 30 but the final product will be up for grabs on Saturday, Dec. 3, when Hofherr’s will sell 100 of the sandwiches — 50 in-store at 300 Happ Road and 50 more online (preorder here).
“We’ve taken this and run with it,” Hofherr said. ” … This just dialed us in on something, because why not. This is Chicago’s dish.”
The impetus for the partnership formed when Pang, a Wilmette resident, finally watched the FX TV program “The Bear,” in which a chef inherits a blue-collar Chicago beef shop and incorporates his fine-dining skills and training.
The hit show turned a national spotlight on a Chicago staple, the Italian beef sandwich, and Pang wondered if he — like the chef in “The Bear” — could help engineer the world’s best beef sandwich and document the pursuit of beef brilliance for the season finale of “Proof,” set for release in January.
“It’s funny. I have a long history with Italian beefs, but — and this is sacrilegious to say; Italian beefs are pretty good — I never thought they were something great,” he said. “The best I’ve had was around a B+, which is not bad.”
Formerly of the Chicago Tribune and The Takeout, Pang is a James Beard Award-winner, and five-time finalist, for his food writing. After a break from the industry, Pang returned as the editorial director of digital for America’s Test Kitchen, a role that offers him a variety of opportunities, including hosting a web series and “Proof,” a storytelling podcast in its 12th season.
For his latest episode concept, Pang turned to his friends at Hofherr Meat Co., a 14-year-old butcher shop that has built its reputation on local and quality product. Like “The Bear” head chef, Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (played by Jeremy Allen White), Hofherr co-founder Sean Hofherr also spent time in a fine-dining kitchen. He worked at renowned Chicago steak joint Keefer’s, which closed in 2014.
A Northfield native, Hofherr came home and got to work at Zier’s Prime Meats in Wilmette and Stormy’s Tavern in Northfield before opening his own place.
“This was never meant to be something to make a million dollars,” he said of Hofherr Meat Co. “This was just supposed to be … a vehicle to enjoy life.”
Maintaining a passion project is a lot of hard work, such as prepping close to 400 Thanksgiving turkeys this year. It also involves jumping at special opportunities, like developing the world’s best beef sandwich — while at the same time prepping 400 Thanksgiving turkeys.
So it was “bring it on” for Hofherr and his team.
Microphone in hand, Pang met with Hofherr’s team in mid November to begin workshopping a recipe. After a roundtable discussion, they decided to start with a chuck meat — specifically chuck eye, a cut of beef shoulder — “mostly to set ourselves apart” from other Italian beefs, which are primarily made from sirloin or round, said Hofherr.
“When you talk about something being lip-smacking good, that’s it,” Hofherr said of chuck eye’s tender and flavorful profile.
The meat is braised and chilled overnight before Hofherr’s team removes the solidified fat and cooks the meat low and slow before slicing it thin.
Hofherr said the low temperature mixed with the moist state of the beef keep the meat from overcooking, enabling the tender result.
“It’s just below well-done,” he said. “So many places are just cooking it well done, but if you can keep the fat intact and let (the beef) go swimming in the liquid you’ve taken the fat out of, something magical occurs there, where you don’t that oil slick (on top of the sandwich).”
Pang and Hofherr’s team gathered back in the shop’s kitchen Nov. 30 to taste the results of their first batch. Pang couldn’t help but grab a second and third taste, calling the beef “velvety” with his initial endorsement.
Hofherr built the sandwich by first sliding the beef into a Turano roll, tucking in roasted mini sweet peppers and laying on homemade giardiniera with a backstory good enough for a separate story.
Then, au jus gets its moment — first, a couple splashes up top, then the sandwich is dragged through the excess juice to make what Chicagoans call a “wet” Italian beef.
The beef squad was still testing minor tweaks here or there, such as using a warmer bun, as of Thursday, but Pang thinks they did it, and Chicagoans are going to taste something special on Saturday.
“To me, I’m a little biased, but this is probably the best Italian beef I’ve ever had,” he said. “Just the care that Sean and his team put into it is really incredible. Beyond producing a really hopefully compelling show for listeners, I think I want Chicagoans and folks in the North Shore to taste a really dang good Italian beef and I think that’s what we’re offering.”
The podcast episode — which will also feature interviews with a writer of “The Bear” and Italian beef historian Anthony Buccini — will premiere in January under the title “Kevin Dreams of Italian Beef.”
Hofherr said now that his team has made “the best” Italian beef they just may make it a menu regular. But more importantly, he said, he’s proud of how the Hofherr Meat Co. kitchen united around the mission at hand.
And with Sean leading the charge, Tim O’Neill wielding the knife, Harrison Creed maintaining the quality, Chuck Boyle uplifting the team and Arielle Hofherr, Sean’s wife, holding down every corner of the shop, Hofherr’s gets it done as one.
“Our family is here. We’re just two people from the family,” Arielle Hofherr said of her and Sean. “We’re all spending our time together from concepting Italian beef to doing the day to day.
“Each person has a distinct role here. … When we really connect is dialing in these things together and each of us coming with our own take and thoughts and that’s how it becomes ‘the best’ Italian beef.””
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