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    Eat & Swig

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    Photo by Chris Witkze

    Restaurants go full throttle on the first weekend in May. Delis count on this time for boxed-lunch sales. And it wouldn’t be Derby season without one of those turkey legs from the Chow Wagon. But when it comes to soaking up bourbon-fueled festivities, a caterer with appetizer-sized Hot Browns is never far.

    Thunder Over Louisville is a big day for many caterers. Corporate tents top downtown parking garages, and offices with river views host employees, clients and family members. The Catering Company staff lug in grills, refrigeration units, portable ovens and “hundreds if not thousands of pounds of ice,” says sales and events manager Lauren Brown. The lunch and dinner menus vary depending on the client, but you can bet on Kentucky-themed, bourbon-inspired fare: bourbon pork sliders, bourbon bread pudding, variations of a Hot Brown (on a croissant, on a crostini, “deconstructed” on a fried green tomato). 

    Farm To Fork, a smaller-scale caterer that relies on local ingredients, orders from nearby farmers and producers in early March, gearing up for a weekend that starts on Thurby, the Thursday before Derby. Last year, Farm to Fork catered a party at Hermitage Farm in Oldham County for Microsoft corporate executives and their clients. “They were looking for an elegant introduction to Kentucky, so we didn’t do a lot of fried things,” owner Sherry Hurley says, though they did serve sea scallop Hot Browns as passed appetizers and had spring pea and tarragon soup shooters.

    She has catered a Derby night party for the Brown family for several years. “People are going to have been drinking all day, so you have to get food in their bellies as soon as they get to the party,” Hurley says. One year she had a New Orleans theme, with crab and corn chowder, étouffée and mini po’ boys. (All this prepped in a kitchen that barely fits eight people. For this year’s parties, Farm to Fork will have moved into its new, larger space in Portland.) For dessert, Hurley had beignets made onsite, and she subcontracted with Gelato Gilberto to make Derby- and New Orleans-inspired flavors. Last year, her staffers were giddy when they spotted Adrian Grenier from HBO’s Entourage. “Toward the end of the  evening, when I was able to walk around a little bit more, I saw this woman and was like, ‘Oh, my god, is that who I think it is?’ It was (NPR host) Diane Rehm. I was so freakin’ excited,” Hurley says.

    With so many parties happening, staff can be limited. “Obviously it’s a tough day to commandeer extra hands,” says Jon Kell, director of food and beverage operations at Sullivan University. The school’s catering arm, Juleps, serves a Derby Day breakfast fundraiser at Farmington, a historic plantation on Bardstown Road. “It’s a very well-dressed crowd for sure,” Kell says. “Limos come in. It’s the start of Derby Day for some of Louisville’s high-profile folks, politicians, business people that you recognize.” Last year, Juleps tried to hire 15 servers from a temp service but were only able to get four. This year, the Bellarmine wrestling team will be the wait staff, turning job vacancies into a fundraiser for the team.

    For Ladyfingers Catering, which feeds 7,000 at Thunder, Derby starts in early March at the 800-person Kentucky Derby Festival poster unveiling. Most impressive, this year will be Ladyfingers’ ninth year serving the 1,200-guest Barnstable Brown party in the Highlands. Kentucky country ham, Weisenberger grits, scalloped corn pudding — that’s a taste of what’s on the menu at the Oaks-night benefit gala. Yes, Ladyfingers owner Deborah Lowery has seen plenty of actors and sports figures, but she says the staff is always too busy for “hobnobbing and picture-taking.” What does she look forward to most? Without hesitation, she says, “The day after.”

    This originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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