Chef Robert Lopez takes the reigns on 150th Kentucky Derby Menu, interview

Chef Robert Lopez at Churchill Downs
Chef Robert Lopez at Churchill Downs / Levy

While the race might be the fastest two minutes in sports, Chef Robert Lopez understands that the 150th Kentucky Derby Menu needs to captivate guests’ appetites for much longer than those fleeting moments. Ahead of the momentous day, Chef Lopez shared how he created the food choices and a few surprises ahead of the Run for the Roses.

Having worked on menus for major sporting events and prestigious sporting venues, Chef Lopez appreciates that guests want a flavorful, memorable food. From incorporating local flavors to pushing guests a touch out of their comfort zone, his menus satisfy every craving and have people coming back for more.

Since the 2024 event is the 150th Kentucky Derby, Chef Lopez appreciates that this year’s menu needs to be capture the significance of the occasion. As he adapted to his new Louisville home, Chef Lopez mentioned that he does feel the pressure, but he is excited about what he can bring to the table. Sometimes a fresh perspective can make the traditions shine more brightly.

Although the late in the afternoon race might be the pinnacle of the day’s events, Chef Lopez understands that guests do not arrive just minutes before the bugle calls the riders up. It is an all-day experience, where people eat and drink while cheering on those wins, places, and shows.

Specifically, Chef Lopez mentioned that he curates the menu to appeal to that all day food eating and beverage drinking. While the run of show is vital to keeping everyone satisfied, it is the variety that people want. As he mentioned, a guest might want some lighter fare to eat during the fifth race but cannot wait to dig into the hearty burnt ends closer to the end of the day. No matter that craving, he hopes to have a food choice that satisfies.

Since many Kentucky Derby guests enjoy a beverage while watching the horses race around the track, Chef Lopez takes into consideration how those cocktails pair with specific food choices on his menu. Whether people enjoy a classic Mint Julep made with Old Forester or prefer the lemonade forward Woodford Spire, he has found ways to balance those flavors.

Chef Lopez shared, “with the Spires, that refreshing bourbon and lemonade blend, pairs better with our lighter fare, especially earlier in the day. The Mint Julep, a bourbon heavy cocktail, goes well with the smoked items on the menu.”

While pairing that food and those beverages is key, Chef Lopez looks at ways to incorporate bourbon into the dishes. He said, “bourbon is a staple of Louisville, including the overall history of the Derby, itself. The burnt end dish on the 150th Kentucky Derby Menu pairs with the bourbon very well. It is not only the traditional aspect of bourbon and the Derby but also a good way to highlight Louisville through the cuisine.”

In addition to the always present bourbon conversation, local producers are an important part of this year’s menu. Chef Lopez believes, “sourcing our fresh, high quality ingredients from our local producers take a massive orchestration, but it is worth it to showcase their offerings. It creates a buzz around the event and is a great example of the excitement that everyone has for the 150th Derby.”

While the local vendors help flavor the dishes with the farm fresh ingredients, Chef Lopez mentioned that the breath and depth of the food offerings across the track is tremendous. In addition to new items, traditional Kentucky favorites, like Burgoo or Spoonbread, can be found in several locations. That ability to showcase numerous menus for the tens of thousands of guests takes a strong team who is willing to go above and beyond for the guests.

Given that this year’s 150th Run for the Roses brings together people from across the globe, Chef Lopez appreciates that the food offerings need to be far reaching. Whether it is some Japanese inspired fare as a nod to the Japanese owners to the food trends that have people sharing those drool worthy photos, all aspects are covered on this year’s menu.

Even though the over the top, expensive Mint Juleps might be a little out of some people’s reach, the reality is that those specialty items get people talking. Chef Lopez has found ways to make the FOMO moment approachable to any guest on property for the event. It comes from his experience and his leadership that makes the idea possible. The horses might get a blanket of roses, but Chef Lopez deserves kudos for all his efforts.

And, will there be some roses on the plate for the 150th Kentucky Derby Menu? According to Chef Lopez, everyone will have to watch for some decadent desserts that could incorporate that floral motif. It will surely be a wow factor worthy of the special occasion.

While the whole event cumulates on the first Saturday in May, Chef Lopez is ready, willing, and able to lead his team to a successful, momentous occasion. Even if a favorite horse only places in the race, Chef Robert Lopez and his team will win over the hearts and stomachs of the 150th Kentucky Derby guests.

The 150th Kentucky Derby will be held at Churchill Downs on Saturday, May 4. Information on tickets for the event can be found online. NBC will air the event. Levy, lead by Chef Robert Lopez at Churchill Downs, is responsible for the event's food menus.