Chef Marc Therrien reinventing classic Kentucky dishes at Keeneland, interview


Chef Marc Therrien, as executive chef of Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky, has found a way to reinvent classic Kentucky dishes without losing their essence.

Foodies need to discover the innovative Chef Marc Therrien. As the Executive Chef of Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky, Chef Marc uses a creative approach to integrate classic Southern cuisine with culinary trends. One bite of his food and you might forget about the horses on the track.

For many food fans, this season of Top Chef has been an eye opening experience. Set in Kentucky, the culinary scene is on full view. While many people just thought of Kentucky as bourbon country, the nuanced and bountiful Southern dishes are quite intriguing.

Chef Marc played a key role in Top Chef choosing to film an episode at the race track this season. This opportunity gives more foodies an opportunity to see all the deliciousness that Kentucky has to offer.

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Chef Marc Therrien. Here is a transcript of our conversation.

Paddock Dinner Series at Keeneland, photo provided by Keeneland

Cristine Struble: Right now, Kentucky is seeing a surge in culinary scene. How would you describe Kentucky cuisine?

Marc Therren: The Kentucky scene is healthy with innovative young chefs utilizing their Appalachian heritage with a fusion of what’s going out in the world. You will find comfort food with great new twists throughout the region. I am very excited to see the dining scene in the next two years.

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CS: Kentucky has many iconic, favorite dishes (Burgoo, Hot Brown, Benedictine), why do you think that those dishes are so representative of Kentucky cuisine?

MT: Coming from outside the Kentucky area, my opinion is that these are comfort dishes passed on to each generation that harks back to their childhood. Burgoo was a staple in many households as it was essentially a hunter’s stew to sustain the family, the hot brown comes from the Brown Hotel in Louisville which is essentially an open-faced hot turkey sandwich. These dishes were embraced by the community and local variations would be the next logical step in their evolution. These dishes were then passed down through the generations with slight tweaks here and there until they become regional like Boston’s baked beans and chowder. The rest is history!

CS: More chefs are conscious of sustainability and supporting local purveyors, how does your menu incorporate those topics?

MT: It is part a chef’s responsibility to be mindful of our earth and where and when we source our ingredients. I think it’s important to know when certain items are in season and when and how to utilize them. For our operation we tend to limit the amount of exchange of hands our product takes to reach our dock. We do this by working with local farmers and purveyors to ensure we receive the best product we possibly can. We write many custom menus according to what’s available.

CS: Southern cuisine isn’t always associated with healthy, light fare. With your experience in California and knowledge of Ayurvedic cooking, are you looking to change people’s ideas/perspectives?

MT: I let the cooking and food do the talking! Healthy and light is all about sourcing the best product I can find and then using great technique. I have found that our program which is founded on solid healthy cooking techniques is very well received here in Kentucky. Most folks want to eat healthy now but don’t want boring tasteless which healthy does not have to be!

CS: Bourbon plays a big role in Kentucky. How do you incorporate that American spirit into your dishes?

MT: Bourbon plays a huge role in what we do as it is local and each distillery tells a great story. I will use bourbon in almost everything from dressings, to desserts to brining. There are so many complimentary notes of bourbon that pair so well with food.

CS: As the executive chef at Keeneland, does food at a race track have certain parameters or requirements? For example, has a big owner said that he needs to eat a specific dish on a big racing day because his horse won?

MT: Here at Keeneland we have many discerning clients from all over the world who all have certain expectations. During race meets we will have 11 kitchens running full tilt each with its own expectations and cliental. It’s my opinion that I stay ahead of guest requests and anticipate and fulfill what they are looking for. We write the menus based off expectation, season, infrastructure, skill of seasonal staff and continuity. I find because it’s such a huge operation we can find something for everyone.

CS: If I had never been to Kentucky or Keeneland, what’s the one dish that has to be on my must eat list?

MT: Well that is the easy one; Burgoo! It has been a staple of Keeneland for 80 years. During race meets we make 160 gallons each day.

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Thank you to Chef Marc Therrien for taking the time to chat with me. For anyone traveling to Kentucky, don’t miss the opportunity to taste this chef’s delicious dishes at Keeneland.