Kentucky Derby is a lesson in agility and logistics for hundreds of culinary students – 89.3 WFPL News Louisville
Huge crowds will descend on Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby on Saturday and they have to eat. To ensure that the bellies of the fans remained full, hundreds of culinary students from all over the country came to Louisville.
Tyikea Mclean, a student at SUNY Schenectady County Community College in upstate New York, is back in Louisville for her second Derby appearance.
While tossing a mixture of squash in a massive bowl, she said it was a much different experience working in a restaurant.
“Just the volume is, like, intense,” Mclean said. “It’s a different kind of atmosphere, I would say. Because you’re just mass-producing a bunch of food for a bunch of people.
She estimated that she would pack around 200 trays today with the vegetables she is seasoning.
Mclean said it was great to be back for the first full-scale Derby since 2019, before the pandemic.
“It’s such a great lesson in adaptation, just rolling with the hits,” said Courtney Withey, Certified Executive Chef and Culinary Instructor at SUNY Schenectady.
Withey and dozens of students from her school took a more than 12-hour bus ride to Louisville earlier this week. Some of these students cook in makeshift kitchens, set up under large white tents in the car park of Churchill Downs. Others work in dining rooms, concessions and the infield.
Withey said the eventful experience is a paid opportunity that helps students understand “that hospitality is just as much a mental game as it is a physical game.”
“It’s such a combination of being able to push yourself mentally and physically that it kind of gives them okay, it’s as intense as it gets, and it’s as exciting as it gets, and it’s as dirty as it gets. … They were sort of thrown to the wolves here.
She added that it also gives students the opportunity to network and connect with cooking professionals throughout the week, like Sam Carlson.
Carlson is the regional chef for Levy’s restaurants, the Churchill Downs Contract Hotel Partner. He works alongside culinary students during Derby Week, helping them understand the kind of preparation needed for an event of this scale.
According to Levy’s websiteit takes about a year to plan how to feed the Derby Day crowds at the track, and the menus are finalized three months later.
Carlson said this year’s menu includes braised pork with a hominy base, fruit platters and sweets like bourbon balls.
“I love it,” Carlson said of Derby Week’s work. “I’m glad to be back among the people.”
Culinary instructor Courtney Withey is also happy to cook for tens of thousands of horse racing fans.
“I’ll do Derbys until my body can’t take anymore, which will be when I’m old and gray,” she said. “Looking forward to loving 30 or 40 more for sure.”