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Operator Corner: Chef David Danielson

Few chefs anywhere have the experience David Danielson does cooking for huge, high-profile events. Listing them as casually as if reciting a prep list, he recalls the Olympics, the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament, the PGA Championship, the Super Bowl, the Indianapolis 500, and many others—and some of them multiple times. Perhaps his biggest feat was hosting the Kentucky Derby at Louisville’s Churchill Downs. He served the historic racetrack for a decade. David Danielson started as executive sous chef in 2011 and was promoted to executive chef two years later. His final Derby was in 2021.

Chef David Danielson sat down with author Steve Coomes for this August 2019 interview. Fast forward to 2022, and Danielson has moved on from Churchill, taking the executive chef position at Dant Crossing, a distillery and fine dining venue in Gethsemane, Kentucky.

Cooking for 160,000

[David Danielson] “There’s nothing like the Kentucky Derby. It’s the biggest, most amazing one of all. It’s so unique. The fashion, food, and drink are as much a part of what happens in the race.”

Article at a Glance

Attendance for the annual horse race averages about 160,000. David Danielson was ultimately responsible for feeding and watering not only every visitor but thousands of employees. Unlike a basketball game that lasts two hours, the Derby is but one race on a 12-race schedule. Races begin at 10 a.m. and end just after 7 p.m. Food and beverages are consumed copiously throughout that stretch.


CVap to Feed Them All

The bulk of the crowd munches on concessions staples like pulled pork sandwiches, hot dogs, and pizza. But 25,000 of them dine very differently in private, portable chalets all around the track, and in grandstand suites four to seven stories above the track. In such rare air, guests eat from lavish, multi-item buffets and step up to bars where lines are always short and a wagering terminal is at their fingertips.

[David Danielson] “Because of the length of the day, the volume of people, and the incredible variety of what we serve, there is an enormous amount of moving parts. To say we relied heavily on CVaps to feed them all well would be an understatement. We have 37 of them and could always use more.”

Learning Curve

When Danielson arrived at Churchill Downs in 2011, there were two CVaps onsite.

[David Danielson] “And I think they stored towels in them. Nobody understood how to use them.”

When Barry Yates, Winston’s Corporate Chef, heard the track had a new chef, he paid Danielson a visit to discuss how CVaps could serve the Downs’ increasing push for premium foods. For years, the famed track had undergone extensive renovations to create a more premium experience that included upscaling its menus. The challenge for the massive culinary team was figuring out how to feed so many guests all at once, with food that helped justify tickets costing as much as $6,000 apiece for a seat on Millionaires Row.

Cooking Around the Clock

Yates explained CVap’s ability to cook and hold large quantities of food perfectly for hours. He advised placing multiple CVaps at points of service all around the massive facility. Previously, much of the food was prepared in the track’s huge first-floor main kitchen and then moved to guest suites. Cooking was done with convection ovens, Danielson adds, and the results were subpar. All that changed with CVap.

[David Danielson] “Just on Derby Day, we cook 7,000 pounds of strip steak, and we need every one of them perfect. The Derby is a once-in-a-lifetime event for most people, and they pay a fortune to come here. So we can’t use the excuse of having to cook for such a large group to try and get by. I don’t accept that.”

“But now, we can do every steak perfectly with CVap. They allow us to cook more a la carte for our private suites, and they’ve become the cornerstone of our concessions operations. We use them for almost everything.”

“During dark hours when we’re not here. When we leave each day, we load them with whatever proteins we need for the next day—beef or turkey or whatever we’re serving—and when we come in the next morning, they’re finished. They’re perfectly browned and holding at temperature.”

Cooking Ten Tons of Food in a Day: The Danielson Formula

Ordering food for a 100-seat restaurant is normal for most chefs. Doubling capacity to 200 isn’t much more difficult. But catering for 1,000 increases the challenge and the risk of errors rise. An ordering error here or there won’t break the bank, but it will noticeably narrow profits.

So imagine the pressure to get the order right when you’re the executive chef at Churchill Downs and charged with feeding 160,000 Kentucky Derby-goers in one day. Mistakes that seem small become colossal when serving so many.

[David Danielson] “When you’re off just by one ounce of something spread over 25,000 people, suddenly you’re talking a huge miss. Everything we do has to be really well thought out or we’re in trouble.”

derby mint julep

Planning for Derby Day is a Year-Long Process

[David Danielson] “We begin planning for the next Derby as soon as the current one ends. When it comes to creating new menus, we do that in November. It gives us about six months’ lead time until the first Saturday in May.”

“Once we create the menu and decide on the dishes we want, we start working on recipes. Everything we do must be consistent, so ingredients for every recipe are either measured (by liquid volume) or weighed. Once we’re happy with those, we put them into an Excel spreadsheet. Using that, any recipe we create can be extended out to feed 15,000.”

[Steve Coomes] But since you can’t always scale upward on every ingredient, how do you test scale along the way?

[David Danielson] “You’re right, certain things don’t extend out evenly. If you extend a recipe out for 15,000 and it includes cayenne pepper, it might call for five pounds of it, which is too much. So, for a salad dressing, we make a five-gallon batch, and if it works we go up to 50. If that works, we do 250. Some of it is just experience and knowing what will work.”

“From there we build our order guide, and that’s where the numbers start to get crazy when you have to make 13,000 meatballs or 13,000 chicken breasts or cook 5,000 pounds of short ribs. Imagine a recipe for a salad that calls for 260 pounds of bacon! That’s what we’re dealing with.”

Logistics Rules the Day

[Steve Coomes] Delivery day when all that food arrives has to be crazy.

[David Danielson] “Delivery days; it’s not one day! When you’re moving tons of food, you have to coordinate when it comes in, how it’s stored and when those ingredients will be used to make each recipe. So we build a delivery and prep calendar. Remember, we’re not moving cases of ingredients by hand around the building, we’re moving pallets of it. You have to have a plan for where everything goes and on the correct date.”

“Every recipe has a name and every ingredient is attached to it. We have QR codes posted in all our kitchens, and when a cook needs a recipe, he just scans it with his smartphone and the correctly scaled recipe comes up. It’s really handy and gives everyone access. Doing that eliminated recipe books that got left at home or in a hotel room, or just got abused. It also saved a fortune in printing those books.”

David Danielson

[Steve Coomes] How do you determine your pars for every dish? Surely it’s difficult predicting what everyone will eat.

[David Danielson] “We’ve done this so long now that we’ve created a great system. So, let’s say I’m figuring out how much of a particular salad I need to make. We start with a menu taste test by inviting Churchill Downs executives in for a meal. We choose a bowl, weigh it empty, then fill it with the salad, weigh it again, and document it. Once they’re finished eating, we remove the bowl and weigh it to see how much they ate.”

[Steve Coomes] How accurate is that method?

[David Danielson]” I know it’s kind of hard to believe, but it’s incredibly accurate. We’ve done it so many times this way that we really get a good idea of what our pars need to be.”

[Steve Coomes] What about proteins, especially large cuts of meat. How do you set those pars?

[David Danielson] “Here’s where CVap has become incredibly helpful to us. We know precisely what our yield is going to be, so we can purchase much more accurately. Before we were using CVap, our New York strip steaks lost 15 percent—give or take—of their weight in cooking. Using CVap, it’s 5 percent loss every time. And when you’re buying 7,000 pounds of steak, a 10 percent difference is a very big deal.”

[Steve Coomes] Do you schedule when everything gets cooked?

[David Danielson] “Absolutely. We have a fire sheet for the whole day. It specifies what time what food gets fired, how many pans of it get fired at a time, and what piece of equipment that food is fired in. We have to rely on those schedules and processes to make all this work. Churchill has 118 buffets, so we have to stay on schedule.”

[Steve Coomes] What about concessions? Are they as scheduled as well?

[David Danielson] “Since we always have concessions and the menu is much more limited, we have a better-established idea of what those pars are. The CVaps we use for those are mostly for holding things like pizza. They do a remarkable job of keeping things ready to eat.”

Kentucky Culture and Hospitality: That’s the Standard

Attending the Kentucky Derby is a bucket list item for many, but those who can afford the view from a private suite often are more frequent customers. Such visitors like variety and plentitude in their expansive buffets. At a cost of thousands of dollars per ticket, chef David Danielson believes they deserve it.

When Danielson moved to Kentucky nine years ago, he recognized the incredible bounty at hundreds of nearby farms and sought to source those local ingredients. His goal was to showcase the Commonwealth’s crops and its cuisine. But as he learned the hard way, Louisville’s spring weather is fickle. Too much rain or cool weather delays a crop’s harvest, and chefs find themselves scrambling for ingredients.

To solve that problem, he partnered with local farmers to buy their entire crops, which led them to invest in infrastructure that, weather be damned, would ensure Danielson got the vegetables he wanted.

[Steve Coomes] What was the breaking point for you that led you to push Churchill Downs to help these farmers?

[David Danielson] “The local weather…it’s the first Saturday in May, so you can’t trust the weather here. All of a sudden, an order for 400 pounds of something comes in at 40 because that’s all they could bring. So we needed to take control of our destiny.”

“We partnered with a farmer in Mt. Washington to buy his whole crop, and he created an aquaponics farm for that. For the last two years, he has supplied us with 11,000 heads of lettuce, dandelion greens, and other things. The produce is beautiful, and extremely fresh. We’re keeping money in the community and we’re supporting local agriculture. That’s what Churchill Downs is committed to: presenting the culture of Kentucky food and hospitality. It’s important to us.”

Churchill Downs

[Steve Coomes] I would imagine that guests who pay so much to come to the Derby have high expectations.

[David Danielson] “Oh, yeah, they do. But that’s OK. I’m good with that. I like the challenge.”

[Steve Coomes] But isn’t it an incredibly tall order to change things up every year—not to mention deal with a longer day at the track? The Derby used to start at 5:30 p.m., but now it’s at 6:45 p.m. Surely guests want to eat and drink more on a longer day.

[David Danielson] “Oh, definitely! And we keep hearing they want more variety. But as it stands, we’re stretched to the max. We can’t possibly cook a second meal for thousands of people. Like I can whip out a second meal for 25,000 that evening! What they don’t know is we’re already busy cooking for the next day.”

“If it sounds like I’m saying, ‘cut us some slack!’ because we have so many people to feed, that’s not what I’m saying. We can’t forget that some of these people have been waiting all their lives to come to the Derby, and this is their moment to experience it. So we can’t let them down. We just do the best we can.”

“In hospitality, you have to understand that everyone believes the world revolves around them. So we work to provide a level of service here that makes everyone believe we’re catering just to them.”

“I was told when I came here that, from a food and beverage standpoint, we want to make this the best sporting event in the world. It’s my belief we’ve achieved that. I’ve cooked all around the world at serious sporting events, and I don’t think anyone does what we do here at the track.”

Cooking for 160,00 vs. Cooking for 160

[Editor’s note: This 2019 interview preceded the pandemic. The Old Stone Inn was one of the thousands of restaurants affected by virus. It closed in March, 2020.]

Chef David Danielson describes feeding the masses at Churchill Downs as, “Insanity. But it’s our insanity. And we manage it well.” But in his heart, he’s still a chef who loves to cook, and managing one of the nation’s largest foodservice operations was pulling him away from the simplicity of the craft. His solution was to buy the Old Stone Inn, a legendary restaurant in Simpsonville, Kentucky. The historic eatery needed refreshing, and Danielson needed to “get in touch with the food again.” Nearly a year into owning his first restaurant, “I’m a happy guy. Cooking at this level was just what I needed.”

[Steve Coomes] As if you weren’t busy enough, you decided restaurant ownership was good to add to your to-do list?

[David Danielson] “Sounds crazy, right? I love what I do at Churchill, the energy of it, especially the Derby. But it’s really taken me out of very hands-on cooking. We’re running a big business, so it’s very hard to cook here and play and create. Chefs need to have an outlet where the creative process happens.”

“Now that I’m in Old Stone Inn every day, it really fuels the creative process for me. I learn a lot there that I try and take back to Churchill and from Churchill to Old Stone.”

The Old Stone Inn

[Steve Coomes] What made you choose Old Stone Inn, as opposed to another restaurant, or create your own concept?

[David Danielson] “Old Stone had been a special occasion restaurant, but we came in and made it more accessible. We started working with a lot of local farmers, made the Tavern menu lighter, and focused the dining room menu on southern cuisine. Then we hired great staff and started working to provide great service and atmosphere.”

“I wanted to create a culture like I experienced when I was younger and working in places like the Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and the Ritz Carlton and Bouley in New York. It was amazing to watch the magic of a single group of people in a kitchen all working toward one goal. I wanted to make sure we captured that.”

[Steve Coomes] What does that look like at Old Stone Inn?

[David Danielson] “During family dinner at 4 p.m., we talk about what we’re cooking that night. I know by looking at my phone who’s coming in, what room they’ll be in, whether one person is a vegan and whether it’s somebody who’s coming back. We make every effort to match the right servers with the right guests. If somebody’s big into wine, we put our most knowledgeable people with those customers. We think about the guest experience from before they get there until they leave.”

[Steve Coomes] You’ve modernized the restaurant some in ways you planned at the start, and in others that evolved.

[David Danielson] “Of course, we have CVaps in the kitchen. Three of them. And we’re always developing new recipes that allow us to get more out of them. We’re also cooking smarter with them. We have roasted chicken on the menu, and instead of roasting it whole and overcooking the breast to get the thighs done, we break them down, bring each to temp in the CVap, hold them and finish them perfectly when they’re ordered.”

“We’ve also added a display cooking area in the dining room where we plate food right in front of guests. On the wall next to that station are aquaponics grow tubes where greens are picked right when a guest orders a salad. How cool is that? That was something we added after we opened.”

[Steve Coomes] Just to prove that your insanity for cooking and feeding people at Churchill Downs comes with you to Old Stone Inn, please tell readers about opening week at the restaurant.

[David Danielson] “Oh, yeah. We opened during Breeder’s Cup.” {A two-day event at Churchill Downs attended by 112,000 people.}. “Yeah, it was busy.” (Shrugs shoulders and grins.)

[Steve Coomes] And you cooked at Old Stone during Derby Week, too, right?

[David Danielson] “Of course! I had to be there for our first Derby! As soon as the race ended, I hopped into a golf cart that took me to my car in a parking spot closest to the track exit. We come in at 2 a.m. that day, so it’s not like we’re fighting for parking that early! I drove out to Old Stone and cooked for guests that night, and once my chefs at Churchill got finished, they came out to Old Stone and I cooked for them until midnight. That’s fun for me. And I’ll do it again next year.”

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