The Importance Of Food And Drink To The Kentucky Derby, According To Chef Kenneth Hardiman - Exclusive

One of the most storied and splendid springtime spectaculars is finally upon us. Put on your pastels, grab the biggest hat you can find, and make yourself a mint julep, because the Kentucky Derby is back! The annual horse race, which kicks off the renowned Triple Crown series, brings hundreds of thousands of spectators to Churchill Downs, all ready to place their bets and partake in the traditional fanfare the event promises. And that no doubt includes the sweeping and sumptuous spread of foods that will be available. From the historic classics, such as burgoo, benedictine, and Derby Pie, to more modern southern staples, like deviled eggs and pimento cheese biscuits, there is a seemingly endless supply of delectable dishes to devour on Derby day.

No one knows this better than this year's Kentucky Derby Chef, Kenneth Hardiman. He designed this year's official menu, which will feed upwards of 20,000 people when the Run for the Roses gets underway. "It means a lot," he told Mashed, adding that "it's a tremendous honor" to be part of such a long-standing and deeply beloved tradition. The Kentucky Derby dates back to 1875, and today it still draws people from far and wide who want to get a taste of the southern exhibition and all that it entails. Chef Hardiman says that's exactly what inspired his culinary vision for this year's Derby: "My inspiration was keeping things very simple — looking at history, and deep diving into the roots of what has made the Derby successful," he said.

In an exclusive interview with Mashed, Hardiman further dished on just how important the food and drinks are at the Kentucky Derby, explaining that their purpose is not just to keep everyone feeling full and festive, but to carry on the communal southern spirit that "America's greatest race" embodies.

Food and fanfare are part of the Kentucky Derby tradition

The Kentucky Derby is much more than a race. It's also a historic social tradition. The way Chef Kenneth Hardiman puts it, at the Kentucky Derby, "Guests are here to be seen, and having great drinks and food goes along with it ... it goes hand-in-hand." Whether you're wining and dining on Millionaire's Row — perhaps enjoying the braised short ribs and bourbon sweet potato casserole on this year's menu — filling up on beers and barbecue at the concession stands, or enjoying the plethora of other dining options that Churchill Downs has to offer, you're in for a delicious treat that will no doubt compliment and help characterize your Kentucky Derby experience. As this year's culinary director, Chef Hardiman plans to make sure of it.

At the end of the day, "Food tells a story," Hardiman shared. "It's something that's comforting. It's something that brings back memories for people," he also told Mashed, adding, "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." For him, that means offering a blend of tradition and innovation. "From a culinary standpoint, we want to have those main staples," he noted, referring to the Derby classics like bourbon balls, as well as benedictine spread, Kentucky Hot Browns, and more. "We also want to add in some of those unique items that are more progressive, that our guests are wanting," added Hardiman. That's where his unique menu comes in, which includes things like butternut squash, baby kale & farro risotto, pimento cheese creamed spinach, and seared chicken in fennel cream sauce.

​​Check out recipes from the 2022 Kentucky Derby menu and more on the official website. TV coverage of the 2022 Kentucky Derby begins on NBC Saturday, May 7, at 2:30 p.m. ET.