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Kentucky Derby’s Chef Kenneth Hardiman celebrates heritage and tradition with his menu

LOUISVILLE, KY- MAY 06: Olympiad with Junior Alvarado riding wins the Alysheba at Churchill Downs Race Track on May 6, 2022 in Louisville, KY. (Photo by Horsephotos/Getty Images)
LOUISVILLE, KY- MAY 06: Olympiad with Junior Alvarado riding wins the Alysheba at Churchill Downs Race Track on May 6, 2022 in Louisville, KY. (Photo by Horsephotos/Getty Images) /

While the race might be the most exciting two minutes in sports, the Kentucy Derby, as an event, is more than just 180 seconds. As fans gather both at Churchill Downs and around the country, food and beverages are just as exciting as the action on the track. For the Kentucky Derby’s Chef Kenneth Hardiman, his menu highlights locally sourced ingredients, regional favorites, and a little culinary curiosity along the way.

As everyone cheers for that down the stretch, come from behind moment, the Kentucky Derby is often associated with the Mint Julep. While that classic cocktail with its special cup might try to steal the show, its bright, refreshing, and sweet flavor is even more enjoyable with a robust menu.

For Chef Kenneth Hardiman, creating the annual Kentucky Derby menu begins as soon as the previous event concludes. During a recent conversation, Chef Hardiman said, “I was thinking about the next menu as soon as the Derby ended. From what we learned, to have we can be more efficient, to how we refine the menu, to how we elevate the food,” all of those items are back on the board for next year’s event.

Kentucky Derby Menu 2023
Kentucky Derby Menu 2023 by Chef Kenneth Hardiman /

Looking at the Kentucky Derby 2023 menu, Chef Hardiman wanted to bring together traditional favorites with a local slant. He said, “I want to keep it regionally and locally sourced as much as I possibly can.” While he appreciates that the total volume of food needs to be taken into account, highlighting local farms, producers, and businesses is beneficial for everyone involved. It introduces guests to the bounty of food items available in their backyard and it celebrates the businesses who are thriving.

At the same time, Chef Hardiman has woven some Southern undertones and traditions into the food menu. He wanted to make dishes that would be relatable but also excite guests. Whether it was a different flavor combination or introducing guests to a particular ingredient, each bite should get people talking.

With this year’s menu, Chef Hardiman highlighted some heirloom ingredients with some seasonal, local favorites. For example, the benne seeds in the Seared Chicken Breast might sound unfamiliar, but they are a version of a sesame seed. It is those choices that spark a conversation beyond just the deliciousness of the food.

Given that the Kentucky Derby blends Southern classics with local ingredients and a touch of food innovation, Chef Hardiman appreciates that he needs to make the dishes his own, but cannot color too far outside the lines. He spoke about the sweet potato dish on the menu. While his family comes across several Southern states, that dish is a flavor combination of those traditions. From the nuttiness of the brown butter to the aromatics from the rosemary to the touch of sorghum, that composed bite is a celebration of all those locales. It might not be exactly what grandma makes, but it does respect the traditions while elevating the flavors.

Although much of the menu is rooted in Southern flavors and traditions, Chef Hardiman is aware that the food options need to be varied. From light dishes that can bring some zestiness on a warm Spring day to a few hearty options to enjoy after that second cocktail, he needs to take all the guests into consideration.

Since the Mint Juleps are often flowing on Derby Day, Chef Hardiman said that many of the dishes easily work well with that sweet, bright cocktail flavor. He mentioned that the heirloom grain salad would be a lovely pairing with the cocktail. Or, the chicken dish with the honey glaze would be another perfect pairing. Overall, the whole menu is very balanced.

While Chef Hardiman appreciates that this special sporting event gives him the opportunity to bring flavorful food to a large group of people, he understands that there is a delicate balance to be managed. From his team being able to consistently execute each and every dish to highlighting local flavor and food, the event is all carefully orchestrated. It is more than the pressure of a few chefs working a dinner service. Everyone must work in tandem to make that food service seem effortless.

With only a few more days till the big event. Chef Kenneth Hardiman and his team are hard at work behind the scenes. As the guests rave about the flavors, share photos on social media and recount to their friends that perfect event, Chef Hardiman will not be stilling on his laurels. He might raise a bourbon Old Fashion to a job well done the next day but then he will get right back to work on next year’s Kentucky Derby.