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Ordering food for a 100-seat restaurant is normal for most chefs, and doubling capacity to 200 isn’t much more difficult. But a 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, says executive chef, David Danielson.

“When you’re off just by 1 ounce of something spread over 25,000 people, suddenly you’re talking a huge miss,” says Danielson, referring to the fortunate fraction of race fans who spend their Derby Day in premium suites. “Everything we do has to be really well thought out or we’re in trouble.”

How long does it take to plan menus for Derby Day?

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, which 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 we created. Using that, any recipe we create can be extended out to feed 15,000.

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

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 5 pounds of it, which is too much. So, for a salad dressing, we make a 5 gallon batch, and if it works we go up to 50. If that works, we do 250. Some of it’s 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.

Delivery day when all that food arrives has to be crazy.

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.


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

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.

How accurate is that method?

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.

What about proteins, especially large cuts of meat: how do you set those pars?

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.

Do you schedule when everything gets cooked?

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. We have 118 buffets, so we have to stay on schedule.

What about concessions: are they as scheduled as well?

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.

In our next blog, David discusses Churchill Downs’ extraordinary commitment to serving up Kentucky culture through food and drink.

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