Great New Zealand Toastie Takeover: Bay of Plenty café lays claim to top toasted sandwich, breaking South Island's three-year streak

Chef Rich Johns from Rotorua’s Okere Falls Store and Craft Beer Garden
Chef Rich Johns from Rotorua's Okere Falls Store and Craft Beer Garden has won the hotly contested title. Photo credit: Supplied

A chef at a popular Rotorua café has officially been crowned as the maker of the best toasted sandwich in Aotearoa for 2022, taking out the top spot in the annual Great New Zealand Toastie Takeover.

Chef Rich Johns from Rotorua's Okere Falls Store and Craft Beer Garden is the recipient of the hotly contested title, with his 'Get Smoked, Pickled + Toasted' creation bringing an end to the South Island's three-year reign.

The winning sandwich consists of house-smoked and beer-brined brisket, McClure's Pickles, hop-salted mozzarella, smoked cheddar, watercress and horseradish on Bread Asylum X Lumberjack Brewing spent grain sourdough, teamed with pickle brine sour cream and a beer gravy dipping bowl - all served up for a reasonable $15.50. The brisket was brined in a house lager from local brewer Lumberjack Brewing before being spritzed with McClure's pickle brine and smoked for 24 hours on-site using a special rub. Is your mouth watering, too?

Johns, who has worked at the Okere Falls Store for the past six years, first entered the Great New Zealand Toastie Takeover in 2021 but unfortunately, his journey was cut short before the final round. Undeterred, he returned for another attempt this year - proving the second time can also be the charm.

A former wedding photographer, Johns switched careers when he decided photography didn't allow him enough time with his young family. He first began working as a barista at Okere Falls Store, and after displaying an interest in menu development, moved to the kitchen, where he eventually became head chef.

Johns said he's thrilled to be crowned the country's toasted sandwich champion.

"It's still sinking in, but it's a huge honour," he said. "It reinforces the love and care we put into the creations at Okere Falls - we get lots of compliments from our diners on the food.

"We don't have a traditional menu and try to be a little different, so to win this shows it's paying off and it's so amazing to be rewarded. We've had so many rave reviews about the toastie and to win, it means a lot."

Chef Rich Johns from Rotorua’s Okere Falls Store and Craft Beer Garden - the winning toastie
Photo credit: Supplied

The previous three winners of the Great New Zealand Toastie Takeover all hailed from the South: Steve MacDougall from Mollies Bar and Eatery at Blenheim's Hotel d'Urville took the title in 2021; Romeo Dowling-Mitchell from Dunedin's Hungry Hobos was the winner in 2020; and Joseph Walker from the Hokitika Sandwich Company was awarded the honour in 2019. This year is the first to put an end to the South Island's three-year streak, marking Rotorua as a must-do destination for toastie enthusiasts - of which there are seemingly many.

The competition's head judge, Kerry Tyack, said this year's winner was highly innovative, despite utilising ingredients that were both familiar and readily available.

"The Okere Falls Store is a craft beer café, and it was great to see they maxed out the influence of craft brewing - for example, using hop-salted mozzarella, beer-soaked brisket, and artisan sourdough bread made from spent brewing grains," Tyack said.

"We also enjoyed the nod to wild food via the use of watercress, while using the pickles as a palate-cleansing element was inspired. Their juice lifted the sour cream to a pickle-and-dill-inspired high. 

"The entry also delivered epic mouthfeel and both complementary and contrasting flavours. No ingredient was superfluous; we gave it a perfect score for taste. We should also mention the inclusion of a brief note explaining the brewing philosophy behind the main ingredients. It tied everything together perfectly."

Chef Rich Johns from Rotorua’s Okere Falls Store and Craft Beer Garden
Chef Rich Johns from Rotorua's Okere Falls Store and Craft Beer Garden. Photo credit: Supplied

The fifth year of the popular competition saw more than 140,000 toasties served up to customers across more than 180 eateries vying for the title.

The Great New Zealand Toastie Takeover's criteria stipulated that sandwiches had to be toasted between two slices of bread and able to be eaten by hand. The toasties also were required to contain cheese and McClure's Pickles - known for their tangy, crunchy punch and cult-like following - with all other ingredients entirely up to the entrant's imagination.

The 13 finalists selected from the 180 entrants were judged on the same criteria, including presentation, effectiveness of preparation technique, eatability, taste, innovation, and originality.

Johns and Okere Falls Store can now claim to the top toastie award by way of a bespoke Rikki Berger trophy, a year's worth of McClure's Pickles, and $500 in vouchers to give away to customers. The winning toasted sandwich will remain on their menu seven days a week until the end of August – and potentially beyond.

The Great New Zealand Toastie Takeover is New Zealand's only national toasted sandwich competition, established in 2018 by McClure's Pickles and local distributors Cook & Nelson. Now in its fifth year, the competition is run over the winter period in two phases. Phase one of the judging process sees all entrant's submissions scored out of a possible 100 marks, with two finalists each across six regions. A panel of 20 to 30 judges from the foodie community are tasked with scoring the selection of toasties, moderated by head judge Kerry Tyack. The top 12 are then re-judged using the same set criteria before a supreme winner is determined. 

Last year saw 120 entrants with 80,000 toasties served over the duration of the campaign.