Hot Brown: Louisville's other delicious claim to fame.
Kentucky is famous for many things, including Cumberland Falls, Slugger bats, bourbon by the barrel, Loretta Lynn, burgoo, and one of the most prestigious horse races at Churchill Downs. But for decades, another Bluegrass-inspired delicacy has been creeping onto the list of notable eats—and not just in the South but across the country. Credited as the unofficial dish of Louisville, the signature Hot Brown sandwich (or Kentucky Brown) has a rather interesting origin, one that oddly began as a delicious late-night medley to satiate bored hotel guests and, much later, served as a greasy cure for a bourbon-induced hangover.
True to its name, the Hot Brown was originally conceived in 1926 by Fred K. Schmidt, a chef at Louisville's Camberley Brown Hotel. During the heyday of the Roaring Twenties, the hotel would host supper dances, attracting more than 1,200 revelers each night for a fun night of dancing until the crack of dawn. You can imagine such activities worked up quite the appetite. So when guests would visit the hotel’s restaurant for a midnight snack, they were often treated to a humble plate of ham and eggs. Not the worst meal in the world, but as with any dish, you can see how the lodgers could grow tired of eating the same thing night after night. Faced with demanding guests who craved something new and appetizing, Chef Schmidt set about upgrading the menu. And thus, the Hot Brown was born, becoming the Kentucky classic as we know it today. In fact, it’s still a favorite among the hotel’s guests and weekend Derby-goers.
Now that you know the history, here’s what it’s made of: Like any good ol’ sandwich, it starts with the bread and filling. Unlike common hand-held sandwiches, the original Hot Brown was an open-faced sandwich, piled high with layers of roasted turkey, covered in a creamy Mornay sauce, and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese—all served on a thick slice of toast. The specialty was then broiled until the bread turned golden and crispy, and the sauce began to brown. Later, tomato slices and bacon were added on top, with pimientos used as garnish. Think of it as a homey, pared-down variation of the traditional Welsh rarebit.
If a visit to Kentucky or the Derby isn’t happening for the foreseeable future, you can still eat breakfast like a champion jockey, thanks to these four Southern adaptations on the popular sandwich:
- Kentucky Hot Brown Tart
- Hot Browns with Fried Cheese Grits
- Kentucky Hot Brown Cornbread Skillet
- Biscuit Hot Browns
Although the Brown Hotel serves their original recipe with tomato slices tucked alongside the sandwich, you’ll find that our version (in the video above) toasts the white bread first, and then the juicy wedges are layered on top of the melted, bubbly dish. That way, we guarantee every forkful delivers a warm, meaty, and cheesy bite.