A KENTUCKY HOT BROWN IN LOUISVILLE TOWN
Our meeting was part of research for my book, EATING FOR BRITAIN and, after spending time with Ali Aslam and his family, he took me into the small kitchen of the restaurant to show me how the dish was prepared. The food was delicious and I polished off the dish, cleaning my plate with pieces I tore from a stupidly large naan. It was a memorable experience and made, I hope, for an enjoyable chapter in the book. At the very least, to eat the sauce at the source was an memory that I shall not rapidly forget.
There is something quite special about eating at dish in the place where it was created and, over the last few years, I have been fortunate enough to do just that, sampling everything from Bakewell Puddings to Tabasco Sauce in the places where they were created and continue to thrive.
A short while ago, I received a mail from the good people at The Brown Hotel in Louisville, KY, where the "G.O.A.T" once lived and has a suite still bearing his name. The e-mail was an invitation to come and help celebrate the 85th Anniversary of the hotel’s culinary gift to the world, The Kentucky “Hot Brown”
I had heard of the Hot Brown before, but knew little about it other than having once heard it described as “a Welsh rarebit on steroids” That description alone was enough to make me want to take the hotel up on their offer, so Sybil and I combined the journey with the opportunity to meet up with one of her best friends who has relocated to the city and, on Saturday morning we arrived in the lobby of the hotel, hungry and in need of an unfeasibly large breakfast.
The Brown Hotel was not going to disappoint and, soon after we had been shown to our table in J.Graham’s, the hotel’s café, Chef Joseph Madzia appeared to escort us both to the kitchen. While I discussed the dish with the chef, Sybil commandeered the camera. So, if the pictures look better than usual, you know why.
The Kentucky Hot Brown was created, in 1926, by then Head Chef, Fred K. Schmidt. Although the official line is that it was created as a late night supper for the revellers in the Brown’s famous ballroom, there is also a theory that it was thrown together on the fly by the chef for hotel workers after they returned from a night on the tiles. Whatever the truth of its origins, there is little doubt that it soon became the most requested dish at The Brown Hotel, ordered by over 95% of its customers, and that its popularity spread until it became the unofficial signature dish of its home state. It is now available all over Kentucky and many restaurants in Louisville offer up their own version. The Hot Brown at The Brown Hotel, however, is the original and, according to most people I spoke to, still the best.
In the kitchen, Chef Madzia had laid out all the ingredients for the perfect Hot Brown. It is a simple dish, created with less ingredients than you could count on the fingers of two healthy hands; Texas Toast (a double slice thick brioche like bread), roast turkey breast, beefsteak tomato, mornay sauce (a béchamel sauce thickened with Parmesan cheese), grated Parmesan cheese, paprika and strips of bacon.
While Sybil proved her ability to snap away at an international level, the chef began to prepare the Hot Brown, cutting the crusts of two slices of Texas toast and layering them in the bottom of the enamel dish in which it would finally be served. He cut a beefsteak tomato into wedges and placed them at either side of the dish and then topped the bread with at least 7oz of turkey breast that he sliced off a turkey crown already roasted and allowed to cool that morning.
The bowl was then placed in a 450o oven for five or so minutes. While it began to take on a little colour, Chef Madzia added great fistfuls of freshly grated Parmesan cheese to a béchamel sauce he had prepared with cream, flour and a good crack of black pepper. As the cheese melted into the sauce, it was time to retrieve the dish from the oven and ladle over a glistening, thick coating of sauce making sure that everything in the bowl was drenched. Finally, the chef sprinkled a little paprika over the dish and topped it with two slices of crisp pre-cooked bacon, before returning it to the oven for one last blast to turn the surface of the sauce.
After taking some final shots of the finished dish, we returned to our table so Chef Madzia could prepare a couple for us to sample. While we waited, I took the opportunity to look up the nutritional information about The Kentucky Hot Brown on my iPhone. For the record, one serving provides around 900 calories, 53gms of fat, 45gms of carbohydrates and 57gsm of protein. Bloody Hell. Although, judging by those numbers, eating more than one a year would mean you will die an early death, you would also die with a whopping great big smile on your face as they carried you on a stretcher to the morgue.
The Hot Brown may be lethal, but it is also bloody delicious. Just as when I visited The Sheesh Mahal, I left solid evidence of my enjoyment of the dish with the instantly recognisable calling card of The Clean Plate Club. Sybil looked slightly aghast at my accomplishment, but it was enough to earn me a nod of approval and a murmur of “good job” from our server as he cleared away our plates and deposited our bill on the table.
To celebrate the 85th anniversary of the birth of The Kentucky Hot Brown, the hotel is trying to create 85 different versions of the dish. In an odd fit of enthusiasm, I promised them that I would make a Turkey Tikka Masala Hot Brown for them to include on their list.
I think Ali Ahmed Aslam would approve.