Taste of Derby Brings Fame, Food and Philanthropy to the Forefront During Derby Week

The Greatest Taste

Originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of Churchill Downs Magazine

Time is in short supply as groups of well-dressed folks cheer excitedly for their favorite. A glance across the crowd identifies recognizable television personalities at almost every turn. It’s down to the wire, and the seconds on the clock are advancing at a rapid pace. Some spectators hold their breath in the final moments of anticipation while others, wrapped in the intensity of the moment, applaud loudly for no single competitor in particular but merely for the culmination of months and years of hard work that will result in a life-changing moment for only one winner among a throng of hopefuls. It is a race to the finish.

All of this high-stakes, fast-paced and thrilling excitement…and the Kentucky Derby is still two days away.

While the scene described may sound like it was cut straight from the most exciting two minutes in sports at Churchill Downs, it is, in fact, a reflection on what may have just become the most exciting 20 minutes in cooking. But for Taste of Derby, an exclusive culinary event that takes place on the Thursday before the Kentucky Derby, that exhilaration really extends beyond the live Future Chef Showdown and is woven into the fabric and culture of this premier Derby Week experience.

If jockeys are the rock stars of Louisville during Derby season, then our celebrated chefs have most certainly been crowned the equivalent of royalty. It is a city that has set the standard for horse racing and, many would argue, has quickly emerged as an equally desirable food destination. The appeal of that combination was the perfect recipe for a signature event during Derby City’s most high-profile week.

Food and the Kentucky Derby have always paired well, but a decade ago, Churchill Downs decided to kick off Derby Week with a flavorful concept that would bring award-winning chefs and representatives from America’s racing regions together in the same way that the Derby field itself featured representatives from the races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. And just as that horse race boasts the best that the industry has to offer, Taste of Derby presented by Angry Orchard claims the finest in the culinary world. The 10th annual event leading to Kentucky Derby 145 included James Beard Award winners, “Top Chef” alumni and chefs from top-rated restaurants in the country.

Churchill Downs Senior Director of Hospitality Services Mark Stone, who has visualized and executed the details of the event since its inception, explains, “Each year, a selection of renowned chefs from America’s horse racing regions come together to delight Taste of Derby guests with regional specialties, exquisite wine and live music.”


This year’s event featured “Top Chef” Charleston winner Brooke Williamson representing Santa Anita Park, “Top Chef” finalist Lindsay Autry representing Gulfstream Park, James Beard Award winner Tory McPhail representing Fair Grounds, cookbook author Virginia Willis representing Aqueduct, French master Jean-Robert de Cavel representing Turfway Park, The Galt House Executive Chef Michael Putnam representing Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs, James Beard Foundation nominee Chef Ferrell Alvarez representing Tampa Bay Downs, “Chopped!” champion Cory Bahr representing Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds, Food Network stars Chefs Samantha and Cody Carroll, and, of course, Churchill Downs’ very own beloved Executive Chef David Danielson.

From serving stations scattered throughout the KFC Yum! Center in downtown Louisville, each chef serves a signature dish from the racetrack region they represent, along with an Angry Orchard pairing or a complementary wine variety from 14 Hands.

Leading to the grand affair and before the prep and presentation begins, participating chefs gather for a kickoff toast in the Director’s Room at Churchill Downs. “It’s good to see so many recognizable faces,” Chef Danielson shared as he welcomed them to his home “turf” this year. The credit to familiarity was a nod to both the fame many of the acclaimed chefs have achieved through success on televised cooking competitions as well as the number of professionals who elect to return year after year. The group represents a great deal of talent and charisma with an evident respect for one another visible among them. “Taste of Derby has started to feel like one big reunion for many of us,” he continued.

Indeed, thanks to the culinary star power that the event attracts, a ticket to Taste of Derby starts to feel like an invitation to the most famous dinner table in the country. And while the industry accolades and celebrity chef participation is certainly part of the appeal, the event has come to stand for so much more.


Through the years, Taste of Derby has committed to raising funds and awareness for hunger relief organizations. To date, over $800,000 has been contributed to hunger relief locally and around the country in regions where participating chefs are located. Dare to Care Food Bank, an organization that leads the Louisville community in feeding the hungry and conquering the cycle of need, is one of the organizations that receives a portion of ticket proceeds.

The annual donation helps fund innovative programs central to the mission of Dare to Care as well as their partnerships with over 300 local agencies to distribute food to those who need it most. From their Kids Cafes, which provide nourishing meals and activities for children after school, to Mobile Pantries, which provide food for those with limited access to food, Dare to Care is the leader in addressing the hunger needs in the Louisville community. In fact, Taste of Derby adheres strongly to a zero-food-waste policy and, through their partnership with Dare to Care, immediately distributes all unconsumed food and ingredients from the event to area shelters.


Undeniably, the most interactive, intense and exciting portion of the evening is the Sullivan University Future Chef Showdown, during which local culinary students compete in a live cooking competition for a scholarship to Sullivan’s College of Hospitality Studies. In addition to the contributions to food relief efforts, Taste of Derby has donated over $150,000 in scholarship funds to future chefs pursuing hospitality studies at Sullivan.

Sullivan’s own Chef Allen Akmon is always excited about the university’s partnership with Churchill Downs for the event. “This is when the [National Center for Hospitality Studies] star shines brightest and we can really show some of the top chefs from our nation exactly who we are and just how great Sullivan University is,” Akmon says.

“It is amazing to watch the students working side by side with some of their idols. It is rare in any culinary career to get to experience that,” he continues. “I love to see the look on the winning student competitor’s face when they find out that they are the champion, and I especially love the feeling of success for myself, the students and the school when I hear and see how well our students perform and represent us and the industry.”

Mark Stone maintains that Taste of Derby would not be possible without the talent and support provided by Sullivan University. Their involvement starts long before Derby Week, and preparation for the Future Chef Showdown begins far prior to the intense competition on stage. Churchill Downs employees meet with over a dozen ambitious and talented students months in advance for the difficult process of identifying a top three for the live cook-off.

In addition to his food innovation, proven culinary skills and grace under immense pressure, this year’s Future Chef Showdown winner shares a touching and compelling story of focusing on a dream even through great adversity. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Robert Martin previously attended Norton High School and Copley High School for culinary tech. “I developed a love of cooking early in my childhood. It reminded me of when I would cook with my father,” Martin recalls. “I was in and out of the foster care system growing up, but being at the stove always gave me a sense of stability and familiarity.” At 14, Martin found his forever family and was thrilled to be officially adopted at the age of 18.

Martin has worked at River House and Sullivan’s A La Carte Cafe and will use his winning scholarship to continue his studies at Sullivan in the culinary arts program.

Taste Before the Race

Taste of Derby presented by Angry Orchard now has a solid time slot in the growing schedule of beloved Derby traditions. Tucked between Thurby and Oaks, it is truly a decadent and delightful way to mingle with racing and tasting royalty. As far as Derby bets go, this one is a guaranteed win.

About Churchill Downs Incorporated

Churchill Downs Incorporated is an industry-leading racing, online wagering and gaming entertainment company anchored by our iconic flagship event – The Kentucky Derby. We own and operate Derby City Gaming, a historical racing machine facility in Louisville, Kentucky. We also own and operate the largest online horse racing wagering platform in the U.S., TwinSpires.com, and we operate sports betting and iGaming through our BetAmerica platform in multiple states. We are also a leader in brick-and-mortar casino gaming with approximately 11,000 slot machines and video lottery terminals and 200 table games in eight states. Additional information about CDI can be found online at www.churchilldownsincorporated.com.

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