Hundreds of pounds of laminated dough and Guittard Chocolate made their way across the country to Louisville, Kentucky, earlier this spring for the composing of premium pastries and fine chocolates to be served to guests who attended the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby. This complex and highly coordinated project involved Guittard Chocolate Company pastry chefs in Los Angeles and Chicago and 28 culinary students and the chef/instructor at Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The end result of the near month-long “adventure” proved a sweet victory for all.
“I’ve been involved in the Derby for 13 years. This was a level of bakery and pastry that is rarely seen ever,” says Penn College’s Charles Niedermyer II, supervising chef-instructor on site. “The Derby is one of the mega sporting events in the world. It’s way more than a 2-minute horse race. It’s about socializing, fashion and dining. And when it rains, people eat a lot.”
It was the second consecutive Derby for Chef Donald Wressell, Guittard’s Executive Pastry Chef who’s based in Los Angeles, and this year he brought along Chef Josh Johnson, Guittard’s Pastry Chef who’s based in Chicago.
An estimated $13.5 million in foodservice revenue was tallied in three days at the 2019 Kentucky Derby, which is handled by hospitality partner Chicago-based Levy Restaurants, part of Compass Group, one of the leading foodservice companies in the world.
The industrial kitchen located at Churchill Downs, which is designed to feed 100,000 people a day, posed quite a challenge for producing delicate pastries and fine chocolates. The pastry chefs made it happen with a creative work-around that involved a true team effort.
Johnson made up laminated dough at the College of DuPage in Chicago, stored the dough sheets in a chest freezer and loaded up for a 5½ hour drive to Louisville. “I made chocolates in Los Angeles,” Wressell said, “and hand carried them on the plane.”
Wressell, who also manufactured pan goods to bring with him from Los Angeles, further explained that there would be no way to produce intricate laminated dough pastries in the industrial kitchen at Churchill Downs. “We made a little pastry area of our own. I brought a lot of small wares with me.
“They are feeding 100,000 people a day from this kitchen,” he adds. “We were doing this delicate work in and around cooks making 6,000 pounds of beef, bringing in pallets of asparagus and pallets of other products. Two things were happening simultaneously that are incongruent; they don’t go together. It’s quite a thing to behold.”
Niedermyer led the Penn College contingent, which this year included 28 students who are hired by Levy for a week-long paid internship. The first day is travel, followed by five days of on-site work that gets longer each day (culminating in 16 hours on Derby Day).
“We have students who go back year after year. They want to go back for the incredible experience,” Niedermyer says. “It’s a win-win-win for Penn College, Levy and Guittard.”
Also instrumental from Guittard is Laura Tornichio, who is Guittard’s northeast territory sales manager and accomplished team builder. “For this year, production was happening weeks and months in advance,” she explains. “It’s been a wonderful collaboration over the years. Three years ago, Guittard Chocolate joined the project as equal partners with Penn College.
“We received positive feedback in year one, and they appreciated the extra level of hospitality. Then it was, how can we make it bigger?” Tornichio explained. “Donald is capable of many things, so we knew we could certainly up the game.”
This year, Wressell wrote the menu and worked with Johnson and Niedermyer to prepare viennoiserie, desserts, candies and other creations for guests dining in the premium foodservice suites, most notably The Mansion.
“The Mansion is the most exclusive venue of the Derby,” Niedermyer explains. “It’s a pure piece of Americana. Donald Wressell came to The Mansion a year ago and this year brought along Josh Johnson. We added an awesome selection of viennoiserie, cookies, pie dough, tarts. It was really pretty impressive.”
Breakfast offerings included quiche, viennoiserie and hot chocolate. In the afternoon, they served cookies, candies, tarts, verrines and small plated desserts.
Multi-color croissants were among the highlights. The pastry chefs shaped croissant dough into “coils” filled with raspberry brioche and flavored on top with white chocolate raspberry streusel. “It was very tasty,” Wressell says.
“People are going crazy for premium quality products,” Niedermyer says. “It’s pretty cool.”
A chef/instructor at Penn College, Niedermyer supervises students and alumni each year at the Derby, as well as assisting David Danielson, executive chef of Churchill Downs. He collaborated with Wressell on concept development, dessert menu writing and execution of production/guest experiences.
Niedermyer also collaborated with Guittard this year to create a Bourbon and Chocolate experience for visiting Taste of Derby chefs. “We’ve created candies and chocolates as gifts for Mansion guests, as well as the Taste of Derby dessert, which was served to 1,000-plus guests off-site at the KFC Yum! Center,” he says.