The Sixth Annual Taste of Derby presented by Stella Artois boasts a luxurious evening for attendees. Treated to some of the finest cuisine from across the nation and a meticulously selected collection of wines and beers, guests will attend the event April 30, the Thursday preceding Derby, in the North Wing of the Kentucky Exposition Center. To give a higher purpose to the event, a portion of the proceeds will go toward hunger relief via Louisvilleâ€™s Dare to Care Food Bank. However, there is a third party that also benefits from Taste of Derby: the culinary students of Sullivan University.
Involved since 2010, Sullivan University makes an unparalleled contribution to the event. Because Taste of Derby features chefs from around the country coming together in Louisville to prepare food for, this year, upward of 2,000 people, the event requires enough kitchen space and competent assistants for such preparation. Accordingly, all food for Taste of Derby is prepared on Sullivan Universityâ€™s campus with the help of its students.
â€œThey canâ€™t do this event without Sullivan,â€ insists Sullivanâ€™s Culinary Arts department chair Chef Allen Akmon. â€œNumber one because we provide all the student volunteers, and number two because they need our kitchens and our facilities to facilitate the prep of the food.â€ As the chefs convene to make the food at Sullivan the Wednesday before Taste of Derby, a group of students is assigned to them and assist the chefs in preparing the massive amount of food needed for the event, an aspect even the chefs themselves enjoy. As Akmon reveals, â€œthe chefs absolutely love [working with students]â€¦Most chefs really grow up with that sort of mentality because someone taught them.â€
Throughout this monumentally educational process, the students get the rare opportunity to observe the technique and skill of nationally renowned chefs. The preparation time also consists of mini presentations, featuring the specialties of certain chefs. For example, last year, Chef Patrick McMurray, who holds the world record for most oysters shucked in one minute, provided a lesson for the students on oyster types, technique, flavor profile and other in-depth material. â€œThey donâ€™t come here just to prep,â€ Akmon expresses. â€œThey also come in ready to share their expertise with the next generation.â€
Following the preparation period, the students accompany the chefs to the event, standing at their side at the chefâ€™s station. Akmon is exceptionally proud of Sullivanâ€™s involvement and is genuinely glad his students are able to have such an incredible experience. â€œThose opportunities to stand next to and work with some famous chefs are very limited and few and far between,â€ he contends. â€œSo I really feel like the students get an experience from this that will stick with them, likely for the rest of their lives.â€
In addition to culinary experience, Taste of Derby also provides unique scholarship opportunities for the students. There is a written application process via the Taste of Derby Scholarship Fund awarded to two students, but the more exciting opportunity is the Creekstone Farms Chef Showdown. Three students, who are selected in the preceding weeks, have twenty minutes onstage at the event to prepare a dish using a particular cut of meat from Creekstone Farms. The winner is selected by a panel of celebrity judges and receives $5,000 toward their education.
Whitney Fontaine, last yearâ€™s winner, was just in her fifth week of culinary school when she won with her seared beef atop a blue gouda grit cake with a bourbon caramelized bacon jam and sriracha gastrique. Even a year later, Fontaine remains in awe of her win and is tremendously grateful for the opportunity offered by Sullivan and Taste of Derby. â€œHereâ€™s one event every year where youâ€™ve got chefs who are getting James Beard nominations, who are doing very different things than maybe what weâ€™re doing in Louisville,â€ she describes eagerly. â€œAnd theyâ€™re all coming to Louisville where the students get to work side by side with them and have that experience and make those contacts. Itâ€™s a really great networking opportunity, and itâ€™s a really great learning opportunity.â€
In addition to the knowledge and connections students gain from working with these chefs, they also experience the possibilities of philanthropy within the culinary world. Because the event donates a portion of its proceeds to hunger relief, Akmon believes it is a prime opportunity to encourage the students to use their impending culinary degree to help the community. He relates that the best moment of the night is when the students gather for a photo around the truck set to take all left over food from the evening to the Dare to Care Food Bank. â€œHopefully we can instill a mentality of giving back in the students with this event,â€ he ponders.
With all the exciting facets to the event, itâ€™s hard for Akmon not to be enthused: â€œItâ€™s a busy day, and our students get right in there and work side by side with some of the top chefs in the nation,â€ he exudes giddily. However, the event is certainly more than that as it provides a setting for education, scholarship, fundraising and, ultimately, creates an experience these students will never forget.
By REMY SISK, Contributing Writer