No one in Melbourne does sandwiches quite like Barry Susanto, the owner and chef behind Indonesian sandwich shop Warkop.
Susanto first moved to Melbourne from Jakarta – his hometown in Indonesia – almost 13 years ago. It was then that he decided to train to become a chef, going on to work at popular restaurants such as Luxbite and now-closed Hellenic Republic. His last post was a three-year sous chef stint at Julian Hills’ Yarraville fine diner Navi.
“[The Navi team] have become more like a family to me than just work,” says Susanto. “I loved every minute I was there.”
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Susanto indeed thrived in a fine dining environment. “The more intense, the better it gets for me,” says Susanto. “It challenges me to push the boundaries.” Though he acknowledges the stress that came with the job, Susanto explains “that’s what keeps us going … you produce things to make people happy, to [see them] enjoying their meal, [and] showcase ingredients that people don’t really know about.”
During the 2020 Melbourne lockdowns, Navi, like many other restaurants, pivoted to a takeaway and bakery operation. Every day, Susanto made sandwiches for his co-workers using leftover bread. These weren’t just ordinary sandwiches, though; Susanto was filling them with interesting Indonesian flavours, and they were an instant hit.
For Susanto, seeing the happy faces of his well-fed colleagues brought him a step closer to achieving a long-held dream – to open a venue championing the flavours of home. Through the sandwiches he was creating, he realised he had found the avenue to do it.
“Sandwiches are a comfort food to people in Australia, especially since Covid,” says Susanto. “It’s like [comparing it to] rice in Asia.”
So, in 2021 Susanto and his business partner, Erwin Chandra (also from Indonesia), opened Warkop in the backstreets of Richmond (it’s since extended to a second outpost in the CBD). In Indonesia, a warkop is a small shop that sells coffee, snacks and light meals. Here, the concept is similar: Aussie cafe favourites served with Indonesian flair.
Warkop favourites include brekky rolls dripping in garlic sauce; sambal-spiked take on a filet-o-fish; gado-gado sandwiches; and chicken taliwang sandwiches inspired by a regional specialty Susanto tried on his travels to Lombok. The most popular sandwich is a beef brisket number, loaded with smoked, slow-cooked brisket and house-made rendang sauce.
“Eating a sandwich at Warkop takes me back 10 or 20 years ago growing up in Bali. [I’m] happy to be able to showcase that,” says Susanto.
Trading up silver service for sandwiches hasn’t signified the end of fine dining for Susanto. It’s quite the opposite: he applies the same passion, creativity and attention to detail to every sub he makes. Combined with the originality of flavour, it’s what makes them so exceptional.
“Some people think [it’s] just putting things in bread. But it’s more than that,” Susanto says. “When trained to a very high standard, you think about all sorts of flavours, textures and what works well together.”
If Susanto’s story sounds familiar, it might be because it’s a common trend in the hospitality world. Sandwich royalty Dom Wilton (Hector’s Deli, Melbourne), Ben Shemesh (Small’s Deli, Sydney) and more also left behind culinary institutions to open innovative sandwich delis.
It’s also a similar tale to the one told in FX’s comedy-drama series The Bear, which is now streaming its second season on Disney+. The show follows award-winning fictional young chef Carmy (played by Jeremy Allen White), who leaves the high-pressure world of fine dining in New York City to run his late brother’s Italian beef sandwich shop in Chicago. There, he maintains the same passion for cooking while managing a run-down kitchen, mountains of debt, and plenty of other challenges. Susanto says The Bear is a fairly accurate portrayal of the highs and lows of opening your own venue, especially like navigating business finances for the first time, to ingredients and supplies arriving late.
Susanto also sees a lot of himself in Carmy: “I’ve always had [high expectations] for myself … like Carmy, I’m never happy with anything, just wanting it to be better.”
Despite this, he says Warkop has taught him that it’s always worth experimenting with new flavours; when something doesn’t work, Susanto simply tries again. In Melbourne – a city where it feels like the sandwich trend is never-ending – he hopes more chefs will start celebrating other cuisines in their sandwiches.
“I wish to push boundaries together,” he says. “There are so many flavours and cuisines out there that haven’t been touched [by sandwich shops].”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Disney+. Stream the new season of FX’s The Bear on Disney+ now.