Derby Season Is the Perfect Time to Celebrate Kentucky's Food Renaissance
“The astronomical, worldwide growth of the bourbon industry has propelled Kentucky's cuisine forward in really interesting ways,” says chef Ouita Michel.
There are currently some 6.7 million barrels of whiskey aging in Kentucky — about 1.5 for every Kentuckian. In 2017, all that luscious liquor brought more than one million visitors to the Bourbon Trail. It wasn’t always this way. In fact, as recently as the mid ‘90s, the spirit was languishing in the midsts of a decades-long decline. The revival’s impact on the local economy is demonstrably visible; distilleries have invested small fortunes into building out opulent visitors centers. Boutique hotels have been lifted, from Louisville to Lexington.
But a much less observable byproduct of the bourbon boom is its profound effect on the regional dining scene. World-class chefs, it turns out, have been quietly chasing the whiskey to newfound heights — Kentucky cuisine is soaring. As derby season gallops out of the gate, with the iconic event taking place on Saturday, May 5, enjoy a taste of what’s hitting the plate in Bourbon Country.
“The astronomical, worldwide growth of the bourbon industry has propelled Kentucky's cuisine forward in really interesting ways,” says chef Ouita Michel, who runs a family of restaurants across the state. “Kentucky chefs are using artisan local ingredients like sorghum, honey, maple syrup, and cheese, along with our agricultural bounty, to push the boundaries of traditional recipes.
At Holly Hill Inn — a provincial fine-dining den set amongst the many horse farms of Midway — Michel engineers five-course menus to fit the season. White asparagus appears in a chicken broth bisque. Kentucky rack of lamb is crusted in mint and served next to a goat cheese soufflé. Local vegetables accompany most entrees, alongside pickled chow (a regionally-specific relish).
For dessert, just about every item incorporates the local liquid into its recipe. Michel sees the practice routinely repeated by her peers. “We are using bourbon in our cooking and pairing bourbon with interesting flavors,” she notes. “From our bigger cities like Louisville and Lexington to more rural and small town settings where many of the great distilleries are located.”
Sometimes even in the distilleries, themselves. Michel designed the café menu at Woodford Reserve’s historic, stone-veneered whiskey warehouse, where she spikes a Kentucky beef chili with the house spirit, and even uses it to enhance a sorghum vinaigrette for spring lettuce mixes.
The whiskey industry doesn’t just support its local culinary talent, it also helps cultivate it. “Bourbon is essentially how Anthony Lamas got his career,” recalls Fred Minnick, Kentucky-based author and whiskey expert. “He won a Woodford contest and it put him on the map, and I think he's now one of the best chefs in the country.”
Lamas — now a multiple-time James Beard Award nominee —helms Seviche, a Latin-inspired hotspot in the hip Highlands neighborhood of Louisville. His signature pork porterhouse arrives on a bed of chipotle-cheddar grits and bacon braised greens, under a Pappy Van Winkle-infused maple reduction. Beyond consistent execution, Lamas is motivated by a desire to obliterate any preconceived notions restricting what Kentucky fare can be. This isn’t just the land of fried chicken and Hot Browns, after all.
Across town, chef Edward Lee is pushing the envelope at MilkWood, where Southern comfort is reimagined with Asian ingredients. Highlights from a small plate-formatted men include a bulgogi tartar, and roasted cauliflower with fermented black bean sauce. The familiar presentation of Kentucky pulled lamb is reconfigured here atop rice vermicelli. Even the bourbon cocktails discover unexpected virtues from Southeast Asian combinations, such as in the Big in Bangkok: peanut butter-washed whiskey, spiced with lime and Thai bitters.
In Lexington, celebrity chef Dan Wu is working pork and fresh produce into spicy ramen arrangements, to exceptional effect. His innovative approach to food preparation is indispensable to the runaway success of Atomic Ramen. But so, too, is dependable access to the right ingredients.
“Kentucky's agricultural strength helped our bourbon industry grow, and it also gives our food culture a unique flavor,” explains chef Michel. “Local grass-fed beef and lamb, heritage raised hogs and world famous country hams are easy to find.”
Even the faraway flavors are readily sourced thanks to an overlooked ally of the industry: UPS. The multinational shipping company operates its air hub out of Louisville. As a result, fresh seafood from both coasts is constantly piped through the local supply chain.
Bourbon was instrumental in bringing Kentucky cuisine to an international audience. But it’s the hardworking men and women inside the kitchen ensuring that focus doesn’t fade. In the days and hours leading up to "the most exciting two minutes in sports" — when the whole world fixes its gaze upon the state— gourmet fare is becoming as standard a set piece as mint juleps and outrageous headwear.
Just last year, Churchill Downs — annual home of the Kentucky Derby — unveiled a $16 million upgrade to its Clubhouse. Much of the money went to elevating the caliber of dining options from typical mall foodcourt into a kaleidoscopic showcase of the state’s contemporary culinary landscape. Even in this often chaotic setting, spectators can now enjoy slow-cooked brisket or tender pulled pork — swathed in whiskey-steeped sauces, of course.
“Chefs and restaurateurs are finding ways to connect with the bourbon boom,” says David Danielson, executive chef at the racetrack. That boom shows no signs of slowing. And so, for a growing set of flavor makers across the state, it’s off to the races.