Chef Kenneth Hardiman Gets Ready To Serve Tens Of Thousands At The Kentucky Derby - Exclusive Interview

As springtime gets into full swing, it brings warmer temperatures, gorgeous blooms, and one of the most anticipated cultural events of the year. We're talking about the Kentucky Derby. The iconic horse race takes place the first Saturday in May, kicking off the Triple Crown with a weekend of fanfare, fashion, and excellent food and drinks. This year's Derby promises to be no different, with acclaimed chef Kenneth Hardiman tapped as the Culinary Expert for Churchill Downs. He's created this year's official Kentucky Derby menu, a nod to traditional Kentucky flavors and ingredients, elevated with a modern twist.

As "the greatest two minutes in sports" draws near again, Mashed got the chance to speak exclusively with chef Hardiman, who dished on this year's Kentucky Derby menu, not to mention what it takes to pull off this kind of culinary event. For all of us who won't literally be off to the races this year, the chef also shared some tips for how you can enjoy the Kentucky Derby experience at home.

Chef Kenneth Hardiman dishes on this year's official Kentucky Derby menu

What does it mean for you to be named the Chef, and the Culinary Expert for this year's Kentucky Derby?

It means a lot. It's a tremendous honor, [and] something I can definitely say that I never thought I would have the opportunity to do before. I'm excited about what we're going to do this year.

What was your inspiration in designing this year's menu, and the ingredients you chose to use?

My inspiration was keeping things very simple — looking at history, and deep diving into the roots of what has made the Derby successful over the years, and providing a great experience for the guests at the end of the day.

What are some of your favorite highlights from the menu this year that you've designed?

I'm excited about our partnership with Vidalia onions, and how we're incorporating those dishes in the menu, utilizing and sourcing with the Kentucky Proud options that we have here with all the localities, and working with smaller businesses.

Also, the food aspect of it — we're going to have braised short ribs with the Vidalia onion and thyme demi-glace. We're going to have bourbon-glazed sweet potatoes with pecans on top. There's going to be seared chicken, with a fennel and pancetta cream sauce to finish it off. We also have those sweet delectable treats for you with the bourbon balls from Kentucky.

What it takes to feed the Kentucky Derby crowd, according to chef Kenneth Hardiman

How many people do you expect to feed with this menu this year?

Within our premium location spaces, over 20,000 a day for Derby Oaks. For a total for the whole property, we're looking at over 170,000. That's including concessions, the whole gamut of it, so we're excited.

How much food will you make to feed all of these people?

I can give you some numbers off the top of my head. Vidalia onions — we're looking at over 1,500 pounds of Vidalia onions that we're going to use in certain dishes, about 8,000 pounds in short ribs, [and] a little over 10,000 pounds in chicken product alone. We're going to do about 12,000 pounds of cocktail shrimp. It's going to be a lot of food that we're going to be producing here.

You've got experience with an event like this, previously as the Chef for the Milwaukee Bucks. How do you approach a culinary undertaking like this, creating a menu that is so delicious, but is also possible to execute on this scale?

It takes time and planning. We want to do things the right way, that speaks to the guests at the end of the day, staying very organized, and making sure we're pulling from our resources, what we're able to do, and building on top of those things.

There's tons of prep work leading up to it. Right now, we're actually bringing in products, as we speak. [We're] going through the production process of packaging, organizing, getting things where they need to get, and getting our distribution plan finalized, our schedules for firing the product, and making sure everybody [understands] what we're going to be doing.

I'm trying to imagine chopping 15,000 pounds of Vidalia onions!

Well, we certainly have a lot of manpower coming in. We have a lot of manpower here, from the state. This is a very huge undertaking for us, but we utilize all the resources we possibly can.

How far in advance did the preparation start?

We started some items this week, as far as bringing in some proteins, and getting those things marinated and ready to go so we can start the cooking process. We won't bring in the vegetables and stuff until we get a little bit closer to [the event], and breads, and all that stuff. We're excited. We're pumped. We're moving right along.

Chef Kenneth Hardiman on the culinary legacy of the Kentucky Derby

The main event of the Kentucky Derby is the horse race, but it's truly a very cultural event. How important would you say the food is to the Derby?

It's very important. It goes hand in hand. What [do they] say? "The most exciting two minutes in sports?" It's entertainment. It's where your guests are here to be seen, and having great drinks, and food goes along with it. To me, food tells a story. It's something that's comforting. It's something that brings back memories for people. Every single year, there's a memory of something with the Kentucky Derby for those guests, and food is definitely attached and associated with that. We want to be a part of that positive memory for these guests.

You mentioned that some of your inspiration is rooted in the history of the foods of the Derby.

We're keeping some of those basic items, with pimento cheese, the benedictine, and bourbon balls. Derby Pie is one of those traditions that comes every single year, but also, from a culinary standpoint, we want to have those main staples. We also want to add in some of those unique items that are more progressive, that our guests are wanting, that are coming from all across the world and United States, to get a sampling of what we can do and show off here in Kentucky.

What is Derby Pie?

A pecan pie with chocolate and bourbon that's infused in it. It's a great, luxurious dessert.

Celebrate at home with Kentucky Derby At Your Door

This year at the Derby, you guys are also looking to help some lucky winners celebrate at home. Can you tell me a little bit about the Kentucky Derby At Your Door Sweepstakes, and what will be included in that?

With the sweepstakes, a lucky guest will be delivered that experience of entertaining food and all those things ... to host a Derby party at their home, so they feel that they're part of the Derby experience.

It will include pre-made catered foods reflecting the flavors of this official menu, making it even easier to instantly serve up a Derby party for friends and family.

Fans can [also] look at and see all the different, great items that we offer from an entertainment standpoint, the food recipes, and then see what's going on here at the Derby as well.

Chef Hardiman's tips for a winning Derby party

Do you have any tips and tricks you can share for all of us who will be celebrating at home?

In this particular environment, the best tip [is to] stay hydrated, especially with the Derby. I know everybody likes the bourbon here, so that would be my first tip.

One of the things that we as culinarians strive to do is have everything in its place. Be organized. Have a good time with it. When I'm cooking, it makes me happy, my spirit comes out into the food. I would just say, cook happy. Cook what you love. Everything else will fall into a place, and you'll have a great experience.

What are some of your favorite Derby Day recipes that we could try at home?

Man, there's so many great ones. I would definitely say the short ribs with the Vidalia onion and thyme demi-glace, is one of my favorites. I love the pimento cheese and spinach, to be honest with you. It is really good. Definitely try that. There's so many different options that you can [try]. Like I said, [I love] the sweet potatoes with pecans for sure.

Those short ribs sound a little intimidating to try at home!

It's an easy process. You sear them off, you add your vegetables. You put everything together, you set it and forget it, let it braise for about four to five hours. Then, you strain it off and then reduce down your sauce, and you're good to go. It's a tasty treat, and it's something that [cooks] low and slow. Patience is a great thing to have, and then you can also have a sip of some cocktails, like the Woodford Reserve that pairs pretty good with it, as well.

Chef Hardiman says don't forget your Derby Day drinks

Besides the iconic mint julep, do you have any other favorite Derby day cocktails or drink pairings that you can share?

Definitely. The Finlandia Vodka Bloody Mary is a great option for us here. [There is also] a [Finlandia Oaks Lily] spritz that we're going to be doing for Derby week as well.  The Old Forester mint julep is one of those great traditions that you can't bypass. That's a tried and true [drink], and that's the official mint julep for the Derby this year. It's a great drink. You have to have mint julep during the Derby.

Check out recipes from the 2022 Kentucky Derby menu and more on the official Kentucky Derby website. And click here to enter the "Kentucky Derby At Your Door" Sweepstakes until April 26th. TV coverage of the 2022 Kentucky Derby begins on NBC Saturday, May 7, at 2:30 p.m. ET.