Chef Kenneth Hardiman Reveals How Much Food It Takes To Feed Fans At The Kentucky Derby - Exclusive

The premier sports event of the spring is just around the corner. We're talking about the historic, high-stakes horse race that is the Kentucky Derby. The nearly 150-year-old event draws a crowd of more than 150,000 people a year, all ready to eat, drink, and be merry (and hopefully win some money, too). People come to the Kentucky Derby to see and be seen, with most dressed to the nines in seersucker suits, prominent pastels, and wide-brimmed hats. And when the race isn't on, the folks in the crowd pass the time with many mint juleps, and lots and lots of delicious southern food.

That's where Chef Kenneth Hardiman comes in. He's the culinary director and lead chef in charge of designing and executing this year's official menu. While not everyone at Churchill Downs will have access to this menu, it will be served to upwards of 20,000 people in the premium dining areas. It's a major feat to pull off, but Chef Hardiman, who previously worked as the executive chef for the Milwaukee Bucks, is up to the challenge.

In an exclusive interview with Mashed, Chef Hardiman dished on just how much food it takes to feed the massive, hungry crowds at the Kentucky Derby, and explained what exactly goes into a culinary event of this magnitude. 

The Kentucky Derby crowd will eat thousands of pounds of food

The official menu for the 2022 Kentucky Derby is an ode to the "simple" elegance of Southern cuisine, "looking at history, and deep diving into the roots of what has made the Derby successful over the years," said Chef Kenneth Hardiman — although the dishes themselves seem to be anything but simple. Highlights will include braised short rib  with Vidalia onion demi-glace, bourbon sweet potato casserole topped with spiced pecans, pimento cheese creamed spinach, and so much more.

With tens of thousands of people set to chow down on this year's offerings, it's going to take an unimaginable amount of ingredients to feed the crowd. Specifically, Chef Hardiman noted, "We're looking at over 1,500 pounds of Vidalia onions." Just picture how much dicing that entails! When it comes to meat, the chef said they are expecting to cook up "about 8,000 pounds in short ribs, [and] a little over 10,000 pounds in chicken product alone," along with about "12,000 pounds of cocktail shrimp." You heard it straight from the horse's mouth. "It's going to be a lot of food that we're going to be producing here," said the chef.

The prep work starts weeks in advance

Creating a meal to feed more than 20,000 people does not happen in a day or a two. "It takes time and planning," Chef Hardiman told Mashed, adding that "there's tons of prep work leading up to it." A month prior to the Kentucky Derby, the chef and his team are "going through the production process of packaging, organizing, getting things where they need to get, and getting our distribution plan finalized." Not only that, but the team also starts "bringing in some proteins, and getting those things marinated and ready to go," said Chef Hardiman, though he added they "won't bring in the vegetables and stuff until we get a little bit closer to [the event]."

When Derby day does arrive, Chef Hardiman said, "We certainly have a lot of manpower coming in ... This is a very huge undertaking for us." But he's not worried about making it happen. "We utilize all the resources we possibly can ... we're excited. We're pumped. We're moving right along."

​​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 26. TV coverage of the 2022 Kentucky Derby begins on NBC Saturday, May 7 at 2:30 p.m. ET.