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Kentucky Derby chef bets on fresh fare

By Kat Kinsman, Special to CNN
Laura Bishop, left, and Catherine Dancy enjoy mint juleps at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.
Laura Bishop, left, and Catherine Dancy enjoy mint juleps at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.
  • Chef Jo-Jo Doyle has worked at Churchill Downs' kitchen for four years
  • "The food is coming in waves all day long," Doyle says
  • Track's staff will go through approximately 475,000 pounds of shaved ice

(CNN) -- Here's a solid bet: At a few minutes after 6 p.m. on Saturday, Chef Jo-Jo Doyle will have goosebumps on his arms, and he'll be in dire need of a nap.

The 35-year-old chef will have been at Churchill Downs since 5 a.m., working with his teams to prep, among other Southern treats, 1,892 sheets of Derby Pies, 18,000 barbecue sandwiches, 9,700 pounds of chicken, 11,520 Niman Ranch sausages (including a bourbon version specially made for the event) and 120,000 mint juleps to be served to more than 150,000 guests at the 136th annual Kentucky Derby.

This isn't Chef Doyle's first time around the track, though. He's worked in the Churchill Downs' kitchens for four years, and this is his second stint as executive chef. He's learned to pace himself.

"It's basically like a family reunion," Doyle told CNN. "The food is coming in waves all day long. There's breakfast, then second breakfast, then first lunch ... we're taking our hats off to Grandma here. You don't know what to do with yourself, so you just keep eating," Doyle said.

Behind the scenes, hopefully, things will gallop right along.

Read preview of the Kentucky Derby

"I thrive on the energy in the kitchen, and I've learned it's like climbing a mountain. We train, test, pace, work and plan," he said.

That's especially important this year, with his addition of some innovative new dishes alongside his family's classic succotash recipe and the track's standard barbecue, hot dogs and shrimp salad.

The Alabama native collaborates closely with nearby farmers to be able to introduce some fresh -- as in picked 15 to 20 minutes earlier -- new flavors in the form of "living greens," which are sponge-grown lettuces plucked from their roots right before they're served alongside Kentucky blue cheese.

And "Oh my goodness!" he raves about local tomatoes from Kentucky Hydro.

"Fresh is best. I'm taking what chefs are doing every day. I'm just doing it for thousands and thousands of people." He's also thrilled to be working with meat supplier Niman Ranch, which raises all their animals hormone-free, humanely and sustainably on family farms.

Now about those juleps ...

The track's staff will go through approximately 475,000 pounds of shaved ice, 7,800 liters of bourbon and 2,250 pounds of mint to quench loads of thirsty racegoers.

Doyle notes that everyone has their own method. Some people use simple syrup, and others steep mint on their bourbon. But when the silver cup is in his hand, he'll grab a quantity of fresh Kentucky mint and, "I muddle really well with sugar -- which does a really good job of releasing the oils. And I like crushed ice because it makes it cold quicker."

And he's got his crushing method down cold. No "chewy" little bits for him; he takes a couple of cubes in the palm of his hand and strikes them with the back of an ice cream scoop.

So when does he finally get a chance to chill out? He'll step out of the kitchen, right before post time and listen to the crowd sing "My Old Kentucky Home." It's his favorite part of the whole day, and he gets goosebumps every time.

The moment it's all over, it's back to the races. He assesses the day's performance and begins planning next year's menu, without pausing to take a victory lap. Like he says, "Not everyone gets to be the chef at Churchill Downs."

Here are a few of the recipes used by Kentucky Derby fans:

Simple Mint Julep

Ingredients: 1 tsp sugar, handful of clean mint leaves and additional mint sprig, crushed ice, 3 oz of bourbon

Note: Juleps are traditionally served in silver cups because they retain an even chill. If you don't have one, a chilled tumbler will do just fine.

Spoon the sugar into the bottom of the cup. Place the leaves on top of the sugar and crush, pushing down and twisting with a muddler or wooden spoon until slightly pulped.

Fill the cup with crushed ice, pour the bourbon over the ice, garnish with the mint sprig and serve.

Kat's Bourbon Slush

Bourbon slush was standard on party buffet tables when I was growing up in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, but I've rarely -- if ever -- seen it served outside of Northern Kentucky. That's a real shame.

Here's a fairly standard recipe that packs a solid, sneaky alcohol wallop, as it goes down so very smoothly. It's easy to double, triple or quadruple, but fair warning -- you can never have enough on hand, because no one ever has just one.

My husband and I sampled it at our annual Derby Day party as well as our wedding. Now guests to subsequent soirees barely say hello upon arrival. Even the most demure bee-line for the freezer to scoop out a drink and then start in with the pleasantries.

Ingredients: 12 ounces of lemonade, frozen concentrate; 6 oz of orange juice, frozen concentrate; 2 cups sugar; 2 cups hot strong tea; 2 cups bourbon; 7 cups water; ginger ale or lemon-lime soda to taste.

In a lidded, freezer-proof container or two (Tupperware and Rubbermaid pitchers work well), stir together all ingredients except ginger ale until thoroughly blended. The concentrate should not be prediluted with water, and plain tea like Lipton or Red Rose works well.

Place the container(s) in the freezer overnight or for at least 4-6 hours depending on the make and model of your appliance. It should be firm all the way through, but it will not freeze completely solid.

Scoop around half to three quarters of a cup of the slush into a tumbler, top with ginger ale or lemon-lime soda to taste and serve.

And did I mention how sneaky it is? Keep an eye on your guests, lest they slip too far into the slush pile.

Note: Don't splurge on the good stuff for this. Save your Woodford and Booker's for sipping and juleps (and hand your Van Winkle on over this way). Evan Williams is cheap, respectable and gets the job done.