Journey to the Winner’s Circle

Kentucky Derby is a culinary marathon for students

by Tom Speicher, writer/video editor. Photos by Speicher, except as credited

Published August 1, 2018

Penn College writer/video editor Tom Speicher embedded with hospitality students as they traveled to the 2018 Kentucky Derby. For a quarter century, Penn College students have joined the Derby’s culinary team.

Circa May 2014

Two classmates quietly climb aboard a yellow bus. She’s dressed in a green-plaid kilt and a white button-down shirt.  He’s wearing khakis with a green polo. The 10-minute ride through Pottsville leads to another day of learning for Bridget M. Callahan and Jacob W. Parobek. 

Separated by a couple years in age and several seats on the bus, the Nativity BVM High School students don’t interact. But their futures will be united during a field trip of a lifetime.

Monday, April 30, 2018

5:03 p.m.

Callahan is once again sporting green-plaid clothing on a bus. Today it’s an open long-sleeve shirt, complementing her black T-shirt and jeans.  She sits in the second row and appears relaxed, staring at the highway’s rolling hills. For her, the 11-hour journey is familiar. 

About 10 rows behind is a young man wearing black shorts and a gray hoodie, whose attention alternates between his phone and the movie “Thor” playing on an overhead monitor. His apprehension adds to the weight of the bus carrying 41 people, about 40 cases of chocolate and dozens of suitcases. For him, the destination is foreign.  

The only thing recognizable for Parobek is being on a bus with Callahan. 

The two are among 28 Pennsylvania College of Technology students and 10 alumni who are traveling to Louisville to cook for thousands at one of the world’s iconic sporting events: the Kentucky Derby. 

“The Derby would not be successful without the Penn College kids’ contribution to this event,” explains Chef Robin Rosenberg, vice president and chef de cuisine of Levy Restaurants, a premier sports and hospitality company that hires the students to cook at fabled Churchill Downs. “They are amazing. They are enthusiastic. Their passion, their work ethic – second to none.”

Approximately 40 students interviewed with Levy officials in February at Penn College for the Derby opportunity. Callahan made the cut for the third time. Levy selected Parobek on his second attempt. 

“I’m excited, and I’m a little overwhelmed since it’s my first time,” he says. “I’ve never even seen the Kentucky Derby on TV.”

Callahan feels for her classmate. 

“You can’t know what’s going on here unless you’ve been here,” she says. “It’s really hard to explain pallets of food coming in and prepping it. It’s a little intimidating.”

Baking and pastry arts student Bailey L. Frey works alongside culinary arts and systems student Bridget M. Callahan to prepare salads for Churchill Downs’ high-end dining venues on Kentucky Oaks Day.Tuesday through Thursday, the students will prepare breakfast and lunch daily for nearly 10,000 patrons who have paid top dollar to enjoy premium suite and club access while watching early-morning workouts of Derby contenders and later a full card of racing. 

Friday is Oaks Day, featuring the premier race for 3-year-old fillies. Saturday offers the main event: the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby, the nation’s longest continually held sporting event. On both Oaks and Derby days, about 24,000 spectators will be in the premium areas, savoring the delicacies crafted by the Penn College students and army of Levy hospitality pros.

“The quantities can be a little staggering,” says Chef Charles R. Niedermyer II, instructor of baking and pastry arts/culinary arts and coordinator of the Penn College Derby contingent. “It may be 3,000 pounds of carrots, 6,000 pounds of prime rib. Petite pastries at 5,000 pieces. It’s a lot of product. That’s what makes the experience so unique and special. You have the opportunity to produce that volume of product but at such a high quality.”

Tuesday, May 1

1:50 p.m.

This is the students’ “easy” day at Churchill Downs. Transported from their hotel by school buses, most of them arrived at the 147-acre complex by 9 a.m. They’ll become aware that it’s sunny and 82 degrees after leaving their workstations around 6 p.m.

Several are sweating in the main kitchen. The facility “feeds” nine other cooking kitchens and 15 satellite kitchens in the six-story complex. Rows of stainless steel production ovens, tilt skillets, steam-jacketed kettles and countless carts surround the students. 

Alumna Sarah Brunski, ’17, is shoulder deep tossing cut vegetables in a bowl that’s the size of a tractor-trailer tire. Jacqueline R. Dull manipulates a massive stick blender in a tub of chocolate, melted from the pieces that she and classmates Somer A. Safford and Ashley R. Potrzebowski chopped earlier with Niedermyer. 

Fifteen feet away is a table covered by mounds of prime rib. A trio of alumni – Dallas Tyree, ’16; Alyssa Morales, ’17; and Skylar (Burke) Diehl, ’12 – take turns slicing and seasoning the meat for its turn in the oven. 

Four floors above them and about a quarter mile to the east works Callahan in the Jockey Club Suites’ kitchen. A few stains on her chef whites provide evidence of the countless racks of chicken she has drained and marinated.

“It’s not as overwhelming as other years. I know where everything is,” she says. “I think the first year coming in, you don’t know anyone, so you’re really nervous about everything. You’re scared of how the people are going to be, what you’ll be doing and if you can do it. It’s just a matter of finding your zone and getting it done.”

3:30 p.m.

Parobek is starting to do that in another fourth-floor kitchen. When informed he would be “working in Stakes,” Parobek assumed he would be making steaks. Instead, he’s at the Stakes Club, helping to prepare roasted turkey, various salads, and red beans and rice.

“Going from doing buffets at school where it’s 70 to 100 people to here you go up to 500 people, that was a shock to me,” he says while storing greens for the next day. “It was hectic at first. Tomorrow I believe it will be the same, but we’ll be here a little bit earlier.”

Try a lot earlier. 

On Wednesday, three days before the Derby, students, from left, Bridget M. Callahan, Bailey L. Frey, Bethany R. Taylor and Stephanie C. Myers step away from the kitchens to take in the world-famous track.

Wednesday, May 2

5:03 a.m.

A slew of bleary-eyed Penn College students, including Callahan, are on the Derby shuttle bus. (Parobek left an hour earlier.) Twenty minutes later, they are walking through the quiet darkness to clock in at the bustling main kitchen and head to their respective posts. 

Nearby, a grinning Niedermyer and Chef Donald Wressell, Guittard Chocolate’s executive pastry chef, are working on an array of heavenly cakes, cookies and chocolate desserts earmarked for The Mansion, the track’s most exclusive club.

Cynthia R. Setzer carves herb-roasted turkey breast for a VIP lunch crowd at the Turf Club on Tuesday, four days before the main event.“It’s easy to smile,” Niedermyer says. “It’s great to come down here and really make a difference and have an impact on the operation. And when the chefs tell me that they are excited and really happy that we are here, you can see that it’s genuine.”

As are the challenges. 

“The Kentucky Derby is a very complicated, fast-moving event,” Niedermyer says. “There are venues all over the track, so you need to be always thinking, on your feet. You need to be flexible and ready to move.”

10:21 a.m.

Callahan knows that. After working most of the morning at Jockey Club Suites, she’s been summoned to the Starting Gate Suites, a floor above. With classmate Stephanie C. Myers, she garnishes braised pork shoulder, herb-brined roasted chicken and buttermilk mashed potatoes.

In 40 minutes, hundreds of guests will enjoy the results in a glorious dining room bathed in natural sunlight.

“You don’t look at the whole week or you will get overwhelmed,” she says. “Each day it will get harder and harder not to hit the snooze button.”

6:45 p.m.

Callahan is still a few hours away from setting her alarm. She’s been in The Mansion’s kitchen for the past 50 minutes slicing pepperoni. It provides good practice for Thursday, when she will cut roughly 70 pounds of prosciutto as part of her 13-hour day.

Parobek is sitting for one of the rare times during the week. He’s in the parking lot waiting for the shuttle to transport him to the hotel. He shakes his head while recounting the busy breakfast service and his main assignment for lunch: mashing 100 pounds of potatoes. 

“I never did that much mass quantity before,” he says. “But I like it. It makes the time go quicker.” 

Thursday, May 3

12:12 p.m.

Unfortunately, time flies at the hotel, as well. Parobek managed just a few hours of sleep before catching the 4 a.m. shuttle.  Now, he’s deep into the Stakes’ lunch rush with alumna Victoria L. Kostecki, ’16. They refill the chef’s table every few minutes with glazed carrots and roast beef before piping whipped cream on mouthwatering cheesecakes. 

“It’s a lot quicker here than at school because we have to keep refilling and restocking,” he says. “We have to make sure it looks good, tastes good and that everything is perfect. This will give me a better understanding of how I can do things better at school.”

Like knowing the difference between a.m. and p.m.? 

8:01 p.m.

Dozing since arriving back at the hotel on the late-afternoon shuttle, Parobek snaps to attention when his droopy eyes notice the clock reads 8. In a panic, he quickly dresses and contemplates an excuse for being late. Slowly, he clears the cobwebs and realizes it’s 8 p.m. rather than 8 a.m. Relieved, he goes back to bed, thankful for his 7:30 a.m. start time on Friday.

Oaks Day, Friday, May 4

7:42 a.m. 

Callahan is a bit envious of Parobek, since she had to arrive on the 2:30 a.m. shuttle. Mixing salads in the Starting Gate Suites and distributing the dishes to nine other dining facilities have consumed her first four hours. Later she’ll be restocking lunch, dinner and sumptuous desserts and making fruit platters. By the time she cleans up, it will be 9 p.m. She does this without serious complaint.

Morning workouts draw fans to “Dawn at the Downs” for breakfast in the week leading up to the famed Kentucky Derby.“I’m good,” she says with a confident smile. “It’s just my feet hurt a little bit. We’ve met a lot of different chefs this year, so it’s been pretty neat to work with them and see their different styles of cooking. They’re all Levy employees, so maybe I’ll work with them someday.”

11:05 a.m.

In the Stakes’ kitchen, a somewhat refreshed Parobek is also contemplating his future. 

“It’s such an awesome experience to meet all these chefs and learn about their experience and the opportunities they get with traveling,” he says while seamlessly prepping pork loin and grits. “I would like a catering business on my own, possibly, but I wouldn’t want to be a traveling chef.”

12:03 p.m.

Niedermyer takes a moment from building chocolate mousses in the main kitchen to empathize with Parobek’s time miscalculation from the previous evening. 

“When I’m here, I wake up four or five times a night, wondering if I’m late,” he says. “I was back to work at 4 this morning, and that was after an 18-hour day yesterday. I tell the students that this is not a sprint, to pace themselves. Ask for help. Sleep when you can. Eat, drink and sit down when you can. Because when we need you to go, it’s time to go.”

Derby contenders get daily predawn workouts leading up to the “Run for the Roses.” Derby Day, Saturday, May 5

6:03 a.m.

It’s go time. 

Callahan juggles a cup of coffee in her right hand while traveling on the bus to the biggest day of the year for Churchill Downs. About 157,000 spectators will flock to the track this afternoon to witness 20 horses racing a mile-and-a-quarter for glory.  

“Knowing that it’s your last day and that you get to sleep after this is pretty exciting,” she says with a chuckle. “It’s honestly an adrenaline rush knowing that, at the end of the day, you get to see the race.”

9:47 a.m.

So far, Callahan has seen plenty of the suites on floors four, five and six. She’s been a constant presence in the elevator transporting carts of salads that she helped mix earlier in the morning. That routine will continue throughout the day, the salads replaced by hot food and desserts. 

“This definitely gives you a lot of confidence,” she says during a brief break. “You get to show people what you can do, what you know. You get to learn a lot from it. I’m incredibly grateful. I never thought I would be here, let alone with someone from my high school.”

10:45 a.m.

That high school and now college classmate started his day at 4:30 building charcuterie boards consisting of cured meats, dried fruit, cheeses and jams for VIP guests. For the rest of the day, he’ll once again be concentrating on pork, roast beef and various sweets. 

“It went so fast,” says Parobek, who truly seems at home in the kitchen. “I’m kind of relieved, but it’s also bittersweet. These people have become like family.”

1:45 p.m.

The corridors of Churchill Downs are a sea of people, and the main event is still five hours away. Women defy the unrelenting rain by proudly wearing hats featuring a canopy of colors. Men walk about in wild suits. The Kentucky Derby might be the only place a blinding orange blazer with blue pants and red sneakers is considered stylish.   

6:30 p.m.

Parobek and fellow students puncture holes in white garbage bags for use as ponchos. They pull the bags over their heads and are led through dining rooms by proud Churchill Downs Executive Chef David Danielson. Their destination is a rooftop view of the race. Spontaneously, diners turn toward the students and give them a rousing ovation for a job well done.

6:48 p.m. 

The thrashing rain doesn’t dampen the students’ joy as they soak in the festive atmosphere below and the deafening roar of the crowd. Parobek is a couple hundred yards past the finish line. Callahan is about a half mile away by the starting gate.

Most of the students raise their phones for the next two minutes and capture the pre-race favorite, Justify, as he navigates the muddy track for a 2 ½-length victory. 

With water dripping off his glasses, Parobek turns from the track, reveals a wry smile and perfectly sums up the week with three words: “That was crazy.”  ■

A Derby Legacy

The chief ingredient for Penn College’s quarter-century commitment to the Kentucky Derby is Chef Paul Mach. The assistant professor of hospitality management and culinary arts relied on an industry contact, nurtured at his previous employer, to connect Penn College students to the iconic event.

Chef Paul Mach, assistant professor of hospitality management/culinary arts, right, first arranged for Penn College hospitality students to prepare food for the Kentucky Derby in 1993. After 25 years, he handed leadership of the venture to Chef Charles R. Niedermyer, ’00, left, instructor of baking and pastry arts/culinary arts. Photo courtesy of Jennifer CooperBefore arriving at Penn College in 1992, Mach cooked at three Kentucky Derbies with his students from Paul Smith’s College. The rapport Mach built with Chef John Harasty, then executive chef at Churchill Downs, soon resulted in Penn College supplying the student workers for one of the largest food and beverage events in the world.

“I thought it was a great opportunity to bring to Penn College,” said Mach, a recipient of the Veronica M. Muzic Master Teacher Award. “We talk to students all the time about the value of industry contacts. A contact isn’t somebody you just shake hands with. You have to work hard with those people to gain their trust.”

From Harry M. Stevens Inc. to Aramark to current account holder Levy Restaurants, Mach and the students gained the trust and admiration of the three employers responsible for hospitality services at Churchill Downs during the college’s tenure at the Derby.

“It takes someone who is extremely passionate about what we do in order to build a program to the point where we are today,” said Jennifer Cooper, director of human resources for Levy Restaurants at Churchill Downs. “Chef Paul definitely is one of the people who has been a great advocate for the experience for the students.”    

During the early years, the Penn College students handled infield concession and kitchen duties. Now the students work their 12- to 14-hour days exclusively in the production kitchens serving premium suites and clubs.

“I’ve had many students say that it was one of the most important things they ever did,” Mach noted. “Why would you not want to be part of an event that is one of the greatest sports spectacles in the world?”

After 25 Derbies, Mach – wanting to go out “on top of his game” – handed leadership of the experience to Chef Charles R. Niedermyer, instructor of baking and pastry arts/culinary arts.

“Chef Charles is doing a great job with it, but I do miss it in a way,” Mach said. “It’s part of who I am. I was able to make a mark at the Kentucky Derby.”

Thanks to Mach, countless current and former Penn College students can say the same.