Chef david danielson creates elegant and well-thought-out dishes at Churchill Downs, enticing the palates of the nearly 165,000 people who attend the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Ky., each year. This year, the historic race takes place Saturday, May 5.
Danielson is super proud of the fresh produce he uses for all his salads, including his favorite salad that’s made with little gem lettuce, lemon cream sauce and fresh radishes.
He actually started an aquaponics farm 30 minutes from the venue where he grows 7,000 heads of little gem lettuce for his salads.
He gets aged Kentucky ham from Newsom’s Country Hams, which is famous for their “unbelievable” prosciutto ham, Danielson said.
Five sous chefs help Danielson run the kitchen, and all of them have a great amount of respect for their chef, said Executive Sous Chef Matt Sprague.
“Chef expects excellence when it comes to the food,” Sprague said. “Food is why everyone is here … and chef is always on the cutting edge of something new. He never stops learning.”
Sprague admires how Danielson runs the kitchen, as he’s always carrying literature with him whether it is a culinary magazine or a report on new kitchen equipment.
“Chef is almost like a scientist to me. We are never not learning,” he said.
Danielson recently penned a cookbook with his friend Tim Laird called “The Bourbon Country Cookbook,” published to coincide with this year’s Kentucky Derby.
If there’s one area that Sprague could pinpoint as Danielson’s biggest culinary talent, it would be creating salads.
Braised pork medallions, tomato peach salad with goat cheese, and sweet potato salad with pecans and apple crisp are only a few items that have appeared on the menu.
Churchill Downs opened in 1875. The historic venue has many traditions, and serving a stellar menu is one of them, Danielson said.
“The Derby is an all-day event and fashion and food and beverage really, really play into the overall guest experience of the event,” Danielson said. “There are 170,0000 people on Derby Day who walk around all day. To see all these people eating and drinking and being dressed up is an amazing experience.”
Levy Restaurants manages food at Churchill Downs, where Danielson has been the executive chef since 2013.
Over the years, he’s partnered with local food providers to ensure food items are as fresh as possible.
“One of the things that’s so exciting is that we change the menu every year. A lot of that menu revolves around partnerships with local farms,” he said.
“Chef always goes out with the salads. He’s always using the freshest ingredients. You’ll think a recipe is simple, and then he always puts a twist on it,” Sprague said. “I’m just glad he’s our executive chef here. I couldn’t ask for a better chef.”
Danielson’s first kitchen job was as a dishwasher at a French bakery in a suburb of Chicago, and he attended the Dumas Pere School of French Cooking.
“I watched these chefs make these amazing pastries. There was something about it that mesmerized me,” he said. “I kind of fell in love with the business and it caught on from there.”
He later worked at the hotel school Ecole Hotelier Tain L’Hermitage in France, “honing his culinary skills at several Michelin-starred restaurants,” according to his bio.
When he returned to the United States, he became the executive chef at New York’s United Nations Plaza Hotel. He later worked at the Ritz Carlton and Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago.
Working at Churchill Downs was always on Danielson’s bucket list, he said.
“As somebody who’s done sporting events all over the world, the derby is truly very, very different than the Olympics or the Super Bowl or the PGA,” he said.