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10 Questions with David Danielson, Churchill Downs's New Executive Chef

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At 1:45 p.m. today, Churchill Downs kicked off its first September meet in its 139-year history (not that we're anxious about the chance to recoup our Derby loses or anything). And while most press will focus on the start of the Road to the Kentucky Derby, which begins tomorrow with the Iroquois Stakes, and whether the meet is a financial success for Churchill, today also marks David Danielson's public debut as executive chef at the race track. He replaced Jo Jo Doyle in the role last week

Danielson had been Churchill's executive sous chef since 2011. He studied at the Dumas Pere school of French cooking and he Ecole Hotelier Tain l' Hermitage in France and worked at several Michelin-starred restaurants, according to a press release. Stateside, he's worked as the executive chef at New York's United Nations Plaza Hotel and at the Ritz-Carlton and Charlie Trotter's in Chicago.

Here, Danielson discusses what being the executive chef at a racetrack entails, his plans for Derby 140 (just 239 days away) and whether he's cooked a horse.

What does being the executive chef at Churchill Downs entail? How is it different from restaurants?

I'll just say it's a big undertaking. I oversee basically all of the food service. I guess the biggest difference is we have a full scope of service here, so I oversee everything from premium searing, which would be like Millionaire's Row, all of our suites: Jockey Club, Finish Line Suites with roughly 100 suites, the Turf Club with Matt Winn [dining room], which are our a la carte restaurants that seat about 1,200 people as well as all the concessions, third-party vendors. So here it's really top to bottom and anything to do with food comes through us, we supervise and put our spin on it.

What's one of the best ways to someone going to Churchill Downs to experience your cooking? Obviously, the best is probably going up there to The Mansion or Millionaire's, but in a more realistic price range.

We have the Matt Winn dining room, where you can either get an a la carte experience or you can go up to the chef's table which is a buffet. It's open to the public. It's a great seat. It's a little more personalized. If you want to sit down and order a burger you can order a burger. If you want to go up and get New York Strip or carvery or experience some of the different offerings, some of the daily specials. So, it's probably the most rich experience as far as a personalized experience and being able to customize it to what you want to do. We have families that come in there with kids to be able to their business in there, just the casual user coming in on a Sunday. It's a great Sunday brunch and lots of races.

You've been there at Churchill for two years, correct?

I got here three Derbies ago. So I started 2011. I came down here about two weeks before the Derby, so it was kind of trial by fire. Previous to that I had been up in Chicago. I'm originally from Chicago. I was classically trained. Trained in France. Came out of working at four star hotels; Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons. And then over my career I got more and more into doing special events. I was the chef at Rockefeller Center in New York. So I started doing US Open Tennis and PGA and then my career kind of really started going down that direction where I started taking the fine dining food mentality and figuring out how to expand that out to a large format, serving lots of people, really trying to make fresh food, bold food, really really nice interesting food for large groups. Obviously 160,000 at the Derby. So we tried to incorporate that and create, add a little bit different experience than people are normally going to get when they go to a large event or a large benefit or catering function. So that's what we're trying to do here.

Do you have any changes planned?

There are lot's of changes. We're working closely, I think closer than we ever have, with a lot of local farmers, looking at freshening up the food appearance wise, flavor profiles. We're working on redoing the Derby menus. It's a year-long process. I can tell you that the Derby menu for 2014 will be all new, top to bottom. All new types of dishes. A little bit different format. Really, a lot of exciting stuff. Really, really fresh unique foods.

Can you preview any of the things that you're thinking about changing for the Derby?

You know a lot of, without going into the specifics, because we are still in the menu-approval stages, but a lot of product moving forward really being made in-house. Looking at expanding our pastry product which has traditionally been a lot of second-party vendors. So we're likely to do a lot more of that type of stuff in house. We're doing a lot of pickling and canning, making a lot of preserves we're using as bases for dressings or for braises. We're working, again, we're working with a lot of farmers. We're trying to get ahead now so we're gonna have a group of people here growing products for us. The cold food's really gonna be a lot of bold stuff. A lot of really nice fresh salads. A lot of fresh herbs. What can I say? You know, presentation wise and flavor, I think it's gonna be a big departure from what people are used to seeing out here in the past.

I love the way when I asked how long you'd been there you didn't tell me in years, but answered in number of Derbies worked. That's fantastic.

That's kind of how we measure time here. It's by how many Derbies. I've been here four years. Everyone says this is my third Derby, my fifth Derby, my twentieth Derby. That's kind of how time passes over here.

So what was it like that first year Derby when you just started?

It's funny because I've been doing this a while. I've been involved with a lot of very large events. I used to be involved with Indianapolis 500. I did the Olympics in Beijing. I did the Olympics in Vancouver, but I think the biggest thing here, which is most notable is you can go to a Super Bowl, you can go to any other sporting event and the action takes place on the field or on the court. With the Derby the action takes place not only on the track, but it takes place in the stands. The fashion, the food, the drink is just as much part of the fabric of what happens here at Derby.

So, one, I think for me, this is the largest event I've ever seen. I've been all over the world doing events. I've never seen an event that is so food and beverage centric, where the first thing everybody has to do is grab a mint julep. You spend a day of eating and drinking and being seen and watching the races. So what we do really plays into the daily experience of what the Derby is. So just that is a complete departure from any other type of event that I have ever seen. Your product really plays into the feeling and the excitement and the overall richness of the event and just the size and scope of what we do. 160,000 people. It's not a basketball game or a baseball game where someone's here for a couple of hours. It's an all-day event, so there is great length and great range from the people who are out on the infield slamming beers and want a pulled pork sandwich to the people who are up in The Mansion who are getting a very, very different experience and everything in between. So there's an enormous amount of moving parts and the length and the volume of what we do is truly unique and different than any other event that I have ever seen.

Cool. Now you had mentioned The Mansion a second ago. Last year Sarah Grueneberg from Spiaggia in Chicago was down as a guest chef. Do you have any plans at all for a guest chef for this Derby? Is it too early to talk about that?

You know what, yes, we'll do something. We're still looking at exactly what we're gonna do. There's certainly gonna be an element of guest chefs, specialty chefs. You know I don't know if you've ever been up to The Mansion. If you're ever here I'd love to take you up to take a look. One of the things that is unique about The Mansion, there are two demonstration kitchens in there. So out in the middle of the action we have two demo kitchens. They operate all during the day. So there will always be some element of specialty chefs creating dishes. There's that kind of interactive experience. That's always gonna play into The Mansion. Exactly what we do this year, we're still working that out, but there will definitely be surprises and something over the top happening there. That I can assure you.

Cool. Not to get you in trouble, right off the bat, but reading your bio, you're trained in French cooking, you've worked in France. Have you ever cooked a horse?

[Laughs] You know I've never cooked it, but I've eaten it once in France.

What was it like?

Very lean. You know, obviously, it's something they do in Europe. It was a long time ago. But, yeah, I've certainly tried and I don't foresee any more of that in the near future.

That you only had it once makes that kind of clear you're not a fan of eating it. If you said, "Yeah I had it 50 times," it would be a little different.

I might have some trouble if they find out I'm a repeat offender.

Now this September meet starts on Friday and obviously you've been only been this job for about a week or so. Any changes you're gonna have in stock for that? Is this kind of a way for you to get everything settled before the longer fall meet?

We've got a lot of things happening. Obviously it's fall. The harvest is coming. We've got some great products. I've been developing a lot of new dishes with the chefs here that you're gonna see the September meet and the November meet. There's a lot of new items on there. There are a lot of smoked meats. The weather's getting heavier. During the spring meet, the food tends to be a bit lighter. We've done some fun things. We're doing a lot of barbecue. We're smoking a lot of meats in house, doing a lot of carvery items. But yeah, we're already making changes. September meet, there is a lot of fun stuff.

Football season is obviously up and running. We've got a new plaza. Paddock Plaza is a new area we have this year. It used to be a paddock building that we now opened up that area. We're going to be doing some unbelievable tailgating events out there. You can come out and watch the races. Large screen TV's. We're going to be showing some football games afterwards. Some tailgate themes. I have some great things happening up in the suites. We're working very closely with our bourbon partners here to do some bourbon centric type things, some new tastings. So, yeah, the changes are under way. There's gonna be some new things in September and certainly some more new things coming in November meet as well.

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[Photo: Courtesy Churchill Downs]

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