Known as "the most exciting two minutes in sports," the Kentucky Derby has been a major international event for almost 150 years. While the media covering the Kentucky Derby races may be primarily focused on the track, there is actually a lot going on within the kitchens and bars of Churchill Downs racetrack. As the track’s executive chef, David Danielson regularly changes the menu at on-site destinations including Millionaire Row, Skye Terrace, the Stakes Room, and the Roses Lounge, while also overseeing fare at The Courtyard at Downs After Dark.
Prior to joining the culinary team of Churchill Downs in 2011, Danielson had trained at France's École Hotelier de Tain l’Hermitage and worked at top restaurants in New York and Chicago. However, Churchill Downs was not his first sports-related gig, as the chef also served guests at the PGA Championship events and the U.S. Open tournament. Davidson found a perfect home at Levy Restaurants, which oversees food operations for the Louisville staple. The group also blends fine dining in at venues Los Angeles' Staples Center, Brooklyn's Barclays Center, and Las Vegas' T-Mobile Arena.
I spoke with Danielson for The Daily Meal. Within our Q&A, the co-author of the forthcoming Bourbon Country cookbook – written with Tim Laird, America’s CEO, chief entertaining officer – also opened up about what brought him to Kentucky and which other local spots he recommends to visitors. Thanks go to Sara Brown Meehan, Old Forester and the Brown-Forman team for the introduction to the acclaimed chef.
The Daily Meal: How did you wind up in Louisville at Churchill Downs? Had you been to Kentucky before taking this job?
Chef David Danielson: I was living in Chicago and had recently sold my catering business. I was looking to get back into running large events and the Kentucky Derby had always been on my bucket list of events to work. I had some colleagues working for Levy Restaurants, so I reached out to them about moving to Kentucky and the rest is history!
A lot of cities have identifiable cuisine based on specific dishes that they are known for. Does Louisville have its own cuisine or signature dishes?
Louisville has several dishes that are unique to the city – The Hot Brown, Henry Bain’s sauce, Bourbon Nut Pie, and sorghum are a few that most locals identify with. However, what people don’t really know is the large amount of agricultural product being grown or produced in the area, as well as some amazing cheesemakers and country ham producers.
What is your favorite item on the Churchill Downs menu?
That’s like choosing your favorite child. I don’t know that I have a favorite dish as much as I love the fact we change the Derby menu completely from year to year. This gives us the ability to create a new experience for our guests for each Derby, as well as the opportunity to work with local farmers and artisans to showcase the great products coming from the area.
Churchill Downs is not the first sports venue which you had lent your culinary expertise to. What was your first sports-related job within the food world?
Over the course of my career, I found a niche in special events. As the chef at Rockefeller Center in New York City, I fed guests at the PGA and US Open. During this time, I started taking the fine-dining food mentality and began exploring how to expand that out to a large format, serving lots of people and really trying to make fresh and bold interesting food for large groups.
As the executive chef at Churchill Downs, I focus on incorporating the authentic flavors of the South while remaining progressive and inventive. I draw tons of inspiration from contemporary culinary trends, global cuisines and seasonal, farm-fresh ingredients. I work to surprise race fans with meals that acknowledge the past and the traditions of the Derby, but point very strongly to the future of cuisine.
Prior to becoming a chef, had you worked as a server? Or did you start off by studying within a culinary program?
Actually, when I was younger I did work as a server – first in a hotel, then as a back waiter in a French restaurant. I also owned a Chicago-style hot dog stand.
I studied at the Dumas Pere School of French cooking and later continued at the renowned hotel school Ecole Hotelier Tain l’Hermitage in France, honing my culinary skills at several Michelin-starred restaurants. Upon returning to the U.S., I worked as the executive chef at New York’s United Nations Plaza Hotel and at Chicago favorites as the Ritz Carlton and Charlie Trotter’s. I also served as personal chef to the British Consulate General.
When it comes to adding new items to the menu there, where do your ideas usually come from? Do you subscribe to a lot of magazines or read a lot of cookbooks?
I change the menu every year and host tastings all throughout the year. Each year, the ingredients for all the menus are handpicked from local farmers and international partners to achieve a distinctive blend that elevates Southern flavors to new heights. Overall, I spend a lot of time on developing recipes that I think will have appeal for race fans. I believe it’s of the utmost important that the food is fresh and people walk away and feel like they’re getting the best quality.
Beyond being on the grounds at Churchill Downs, at-home Derby parties also continue to grow in popularity. We’re always looking for dishes that you can assemble ahead of time and throw in the oven. When you’re having a party, you don’t want to be working. You want dishes that you can head up, pull it out, throw it out and enjoy your party!
When not busy with food, how do you like to spend your free time?
I try to spend time with my wife and kids – we love to travel! Sailing is another one of my loves. I also enjoy reading cookbooks and visiting bourbon distilleries.
Other than the offerings at Churchill Downs, is there a restaurant or two in Louisville that you can recommend?
When I go out for a special meal or I am asked by out of town visitors where they must eat, Harvest is my first choice. Not only do they have amazing cuisine sourced from local farmers and artisan purveys, but they also have an excellent bourbon selection!
My other go-to is a place called Red Hog, which is a butcher shop by day and a restaurant at night. They truly do a great job – it’s casual, delicious food with a menu that is always changing depending on what animals they are working with in the butcher shop.
Finally, Chef, any last words for the kids?
If you ever have a chance in life to come see the spectacle that is the Kentucky Derby, do it! There is truly nothing like it. In addition, keep challenging yourself and keep growing!