How Gas Station Sandwiches Changed Mason Hereford’s Life

In his debut cookbook, the Turkey and the Wolf owner pays tribute to snacks of his youth.

Chef and owner of Turkey and the Wolf, Mason Hereford | Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist
Chef and owner of Turkey and the Wolf, Mason Hereford | Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist

Flipping through the first few pages of Mason Hereford’s new cookbook, you might as well be bouncing around on the country roads of rural Virginia in the back of his mom’s GMC. The oddball chef/owner of Turkey and the Wolf in New Orleans grew up in a tiny town outside of Charlottesville, a childhood defined by swimming holes, soccer practice, and gas station food.

“I don’t have this origin story where my mom taught me everything I know,” he says today. “But I was food-obsessed when I was a kid. We would sometimes have gas station breakfast where, on the way to school, we’d stop in this store right by our house and it was a fuckin’ free for all. That’s a key memory, that junk food for breakfast situation.”

Depending on where the family was heading, it was a different stop and a different snack along the way. Maupin’s in Free Union was Doritos and Mr. Pibb, Wyant’s in White Hall meant a sausage biscuit, Brownsville Market in Crozet was all about fried chicken from the hot case, and Bellair Market in Charlottesville is where he fell in love with The Jefferson: turkey, cheddar, herb mayo, and cranberry relish on a French roll. In fact, it was that very sandwich that eventually snowballed into the entire menu at Turkey and the Wolf.

“The Bellair Market is the reason we make sandwiches. I totally ripped off that sandwich and went on to sell it. Now it’s gone full circle and they have a sandwich named after me,” Hereford says. “Gas stations are what I think about when I remember being really young. I like food that is loud and hits you over the head, and it’s made my cooking very far from subtle.”

Mason Hereford’s new cookbook, Turkey and the Wolf
Mason Hereford’s new cookbook, Turkey and the Wolf | Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist

In the nearly 100 recipes of his debut cookbook, which he co-wrote with journalist JJ Goode, these humble yet in-your-face ingredients are a constant throughline: sandwiches piled high with salt and vinegar chips, tacos stuffed with pork rinds, salsa macha laced with peanut butter, and ice cream topped with peanuts and Cheez-Its. As Hereford puts it: “We are not above using the grocery store aisles as much as the farmers’ market.”

While this kind of anything-goes attitude seems perfectly suited for New Orleans, Hereford’s decision to move to the city in 2008 was pretty much on a whim. After graduating college, he was sitting at a bar with a friend pondering what city they should move to together, trying to avoid places like DC, San Francisco, and New York City where all their classmates were going.

“How about New Orleans?” Hereford remembers them saying. “Once I moved here, it didn’t take but a couple of days to be like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ I had no idea it was the one place in America like it. We have the coolest culture, the best music, incredible art, spicy rich food with a storied past, an incredible Vietnamese population, real Black soul food and art. I really started to look around and immerse myself. I realized I’m not just in a city in the South, or a city in America—that I was in this incredible otherworldly place.”

Hereford’s first job was as a doorman at an Uptown bar called Fat Harry’s where he became a cook after a few months, slinging cheese fries for college kids and perfecting the art of the deep fryer. After a year, he got a job as a line cook at beloved Coquette in the Garden District, spending six years learning new skills and moving his way up to chef de cuisine.

“I had a lot of menu autonomy and got to see people’s reactions to flavors and what I was working on,” he remembers about that time. “On the lunch menu, I would make sandwiches and realized I had a lot of fun with them. People started to think of me as sandwich-obsessed. New Orleans is the land of po’boys and that sort of dominates the scene. I realized there was room for something else, like the sandwiches I had access to growing up.”

Turkey and the Wolf
Turkey and the Wolf | Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist

So it should come as no surprise that sandwiches were the main focus when Hereford opened up Turkey and the Wolf in the Irish Channel in 2016. (“Turkey was what my old man called us kids when we were being little fuckers. Wolf came from the howls that went up from the kitchen at Coquette after we sent out the night’s final dish,” he writes in the book.)

Soon, the restaurant was acclaimed for its creations between two thick slices of bread. When they first opened, the idea was to constantly rotate the menu, but it became very clear that these sandwiches had a life of their own and became household names: the Thanksgiving-themed Bellair, potato chip-laden Bologna, herb-filled Tomato, and vegetarian Collard Melt.

Bon Appétit named it the best new restaurant in America, Food & Wine and GQ called it one of the most important restaurants of the decade, and (every small town boy’s dream) Guy Fieri featured it on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.

“We joke that it’s the most overrated sandwich shop,” Hereford says. But in the same breath, he’s happy that sandwiches, themselves, are garnering the attention they deserve. “Even though it’s considered more casual or less refined, one could argue that a sandwich comes with even more pressure. With a composed plate of food, the eater has the opportunity to create their own bite. But a sandwich is all pre-determined by the creator. You’re offering the same bite over and over again, and you’ve got to nail it.”

Collard Melt
Collard Melt | Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist

Take the Collard Melt, which consistently lands on best sandwich lists. Hereford first adjusted a collard greens recipe at Coquette and it went well, so he knew he wanted to bring it to Turkey and the Wolf, a perfect vehicle for a vegetarian sandwich. Using chicken-flavored bouillon (made out of veggie proteins), Zatarain’s Creole seasoning, and Korean chile flakes, the collards have an incredible umami quality without the meat.

But the real kicker comes from the bread. “We originally used thick-cut rye, but the next week we got sent thin bread and someone in the kitchen said we should try it like a club sandwich,” Hereford remembers. “We had a much more interesting sandwich now and a customer called that middle piece the ‘soaker slice.’ We knew we couldn’t go back. It was a classic right place, right time, wrong bread situation.” And thus that perfect, repetitive bite.

Besides the menu, the Turkey and the Wolf cookbook evokes the space’s look and feel. When it first opened, the restaurant’s minimal budget inspired a hodge-podge aesthetic that harkened back to those old Virgina markets. Hereford estimates that about 90 percent of the furniture comes from thrift stores, shabby antique shops, or the soda fountain that his grandfather owned in West Virginia. He says his mom tied it all down in her truck with ropes and a tarp and drove it to New Orleans where the “dilapidated farmhouse architecture” aesthetic was born.

Mason Hereford
Mason Hereford | Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist

Though the cookbook—and the restaurant itself—is a reflection of Hereford’s eccentricity (see one photo shoot of him rollerblading through a Popeyes drive-thru), he also makes a point to pass the mic, giving constant credit to his staff and reminding readers that this is a cookbook not reflective of him, but of the restaurant and its team.

The book lauds cook Scotty Yelity for his collard greens, chef de cuisine Nate Barfield for his flawless combination of chicken spices, Liz Hollinger for her pastry skills, and GM Kate Mirante for running the show. Hereford’s brother, William, is the cookbook photographer and his sister, Molly, is the inspiration for his breakfast spot, Molly’s Rise & Shine.

“It would just be silly if we didn’t talk about the group of friends who have made this whole thing happen,” Hereford says. “There’s more than enough love to go around and no harm in sharing all this extra shit. This is a group of very smart people that aren’t me who do everything, and somehow we’ve found a way to stay in the service industry, all work together, and still have fun.”

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Jess Mayhugh is the editorial director of Food & Drink for Thrillist. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.