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Kitchens at Churchill Downs bustling with staff, culinary students during Derby week

Published: Apr. 27, 2021 at 11:47 PM EDT
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Culinary students prep vegetables that will be used for dishes at Churchill Downs during Derby...
Culinary students prep vegetables that will be used for dishes at Churchill Downs during Derby week.(WAVE 3 News)
Culinary students from Pennsylvania help prep food at Churchill Downs for Kentucky Derby 147.
Culinary students from Pennsylvania help prep food at Churchill Downs for Kentucky Derby 147.(WAVE 3 News)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Churchill Downs Executive Chef David Danielson is no stranger to a packed kitchen. Danielson has held his title at the track since 2011.

“They’re getting ready for tomorrow. Every day, we ramp up,” Danielson said Tuesday afternoon, standing inside the kitchen of the Turf Club on the third floor of Churchill Downs. “We have seven kitchens here. All of them are filled like this. People all over from floor to floor. We’re working in teams. We used to assign people to certain areas, now we’re moving people around. We’re watching the levels and we’re making those kind of adjustments to make sure we get this work done.”

There was a lot of prep work happening Tuesday afternoon: chopping up vegetables like cucumbers, bell peppers, parsnips, and potatoes. Davidson said this is the first time prep work has happened like this in a while.

“Thanksgiving was the last really big time we had guests in here,” Davidson said. “But something of this size, yeah Derby 2019, it’s been two years. We’re so excited to get people back in the building, food back in the building.”

Normally, 5,000 food and beverage employees are hired for Derby week, but this year, there’s only half. Davidson said finding people to fill the 2,500 positions was a challenge this year.

“Our industry has been hit especially hard by this [pandemic],” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of people leave the industry or move to different segments.”

With half the workforce, Davidson said there is more work to do than normal because of COVID-19 regulations, including individually packaging 100,000 desserts and putting salads into small containers.

Davidson said he’s feeling good about the upcoming week, despite all of the work that will need to be completed before the Derby.

“One of the other things that really makes this possible in the labor situation is groups like this: Chef Charles. These guys have come down from Penn Tech, a great culinary schools in Williamsport, Pennsylvania,” Davidson said.

The Pennsylvania College of Technology has been sending culinary students 600 miles to the Kentucky Derby for over 20 years, Davidson said.

Chef Instructor Charles Niedermyer has brought the group for 12 of those years.

“The Kentucky Derby is a treat for me as much as it is the students,” Niedermyer told WAVE 3 News.

He said it’s a learning experience for the students, and a chance to put what they have learned into real-life practice at a high level.

“It’s so important that this is the only event we’ve done this year,” he explained. “We’ve canceled and not committed to anything else, but the college was committed to sending the students to the Kentucky Derby. It’s one of the top sporting events in the world. And for my students, it’s an opportunity to see a level of food production that you just can’t comprehend unless you’re here.”

Niedermyer, a pastry chef by trade, has worked with Danielson over the years and said he’s grateful that despite the last year, they were able to make it to the Kentucky Derby 147.

“It’s great to be a part of something so memorable, something so special,” he said. “I’m excited we are able to participate even in such a challenging year.”

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