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Sandwich sensation

ASHLAND — Hardly a surprise for longtime patrons of Ashland’s Sammich, deli owner Melissa McMillan wooed the judges on the Food Network’s March 11 episode of “Guy’s Grocery Games” with both her sandwich-making skills and her trademark grin.

The show, hosted by Guy Fieri, features four chefs who run through the aisles of a grocery store, tasked during different rounds of competition with challenges such as using unusual ingredients or making dishes with limited items.

A native Chicagoan and an Ashland Little League coach known for sporting a backward Cubs cap, McMillan created an Italian beef sandwich for round one of an episode dubbed “Sandwich Showdown.”

Easy enough, she figured.

Judges chuckled as she declared she’d made a “quick I-talian beef sammich!”

One judge stopped her, asking of her accent, ‘Wait, are you doing that voice?”

“Yeah, no, I’m a Chicagoan. It’s I-talian beef. And I know the French people call it au jus, but I’m I-talian still.”

I-talian all the way, she says, down to her lifelong dream of cooking for the Chicago Cubs and even declaring as much on national television despite network rules prohibiting her from wearing any logos — including that of her beloved team.

Sporting a simple ballcap for the show, McMillan stated on air, “My dream is to cook for the Cubs.”

Insisting she’s “just a sandwich maker,” McMillan marvels at her luck in opening three deli locations in less than a half-dozen years and being invited to cook on national television more than once.

Arriving in Ashland a dozen years ago, McMillan opened Sammich in 2013. She launched her Pastrami Zombie food truck in Portland two years ago, and a new Sammich location in downtown Portland opened Dec. 1.

Splitting time between Ashland and Portland, McMillan describes herself as a workaholic, an outgrowth of her Midwestern upbringing. Sammich, at 424 Bridge St., in Ashland, was born out of the Chicago girl’s exhausting search for a respectable “sammich,” which she says is the improved version of a plain ol’ sandwich.

“I couldn’t get a sammich on the West Coast like you could get in Chicago, and I was so angry about it,” she said.

“I finally just decided I would come up with one myself.”

Sammich led to McMillan being featured on YouTube, the Travel Channel’s “Food Paradise” and the recent Food Network airing, along with “some other stuff” in the works.

For her appearance on “Grocery Games,” McMillan was interviewed and vetted before being chosen as one of the four contestants. After creating her I-talian beef — her competition made a Southern chicken and biscuit concoction, a Cajun surf and turf, and a duck sandwich — all four contestants advanced to round two, where they were asked to cook with more unusual ingredients for bread and cheese categories.

McMillan admits she didn’t know what a papusa was when she was assigned to use blue cheese and papusas for her second cooking round.

Her creation? A fried chicken “sammich” with a blue cheese version of the Sammich deli “zombie sauce” slaw.

McMillan tied for the win with South Carolina chef Courtney Hellenschmidt’s frozen pizza breakfast sandwich with smoked Gouda cream sauce. The women split the $20,000 prize, earning $10,000 each, which McMillan said she hoped to use to help rebuild sports fields destroyed in recent Santa Rosa fires.

The best part of being on the show, she said, was Guy Fieri.

“He was so cool,” she said. “I’ve scrubbed toilets and walls and floors. I’m just a sandwich maker. I never thought any of this could happen.”

Hoping to share more than her native city’s best food items, McMillan said hard work, humor and a simple philosophy are her focus.

“My mottoes are to do simple, better; try not to suck; and don’t be perfect, be present,” she says.

“I’m not reinventing the wheel. I started my first restaurant with $700, and I have three places now. I’m the classic American dream story. I started as a nobody. I was in Ashland the night before I went to film the show, scrubbing my floors at Sammich. The next day, I was on a plane to Santa Rosa to film ‘Guy’s Grocery Games.’ How effing awesome is that?”

On the web: http://sammichrestaurants.com/

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Since opening Sammich in Ashland, Melissa McMillan has opened a restaurant in Portland and rolled out a food cart. - Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune photos
Melissa McMillan opened Sammich in Ashland in 2013. She launched her Pastrami Zombie food truck in Portland two years ago, and a new Sammich location in downtown Portland opened Dec. 1.