Bourbon Classic 2019: Top Chefs and Beyond

Chef Kelsey Barnard Clark of KBC

Chef Kelsey Barnard Clark of KBC

These chefs like to cook with bourbon. (Sometimes they even put it in the food!)

All photos by Maggie Kimberl.

Louisville has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to both bourbon and great food. People here have been coming up with creative bourbon and food pairings since before the late 1990s/early 2000s bourbon boom, and nothing celebrates this tradition more than The Bourbon Classic.

The Bourbon Classic, in its seventh year in Louisville, Kentucky, has always kicked off the main festivities with a Friday night cocktail and small plates competition. Teams of mixologists and chefs from all over the region pair up to represent a different distillery with two cocktail and small plate combinations, both classic and contemporary. Ticket holders are the real winners here—you basically get to circle the room trying as many cocktails and small plates as you can shove down your gullet before they switch gears and make something completely new and you start all over again. Over the years the emphasis on the culinary ties to the bourbon world has been dialed up, and now there are classes on making cocktails, pairing bourbon with chocolate and country ham and cheese, and even how to incorporate bourbon in your brunch menu.

But this year there was something even more special: three of the contestants from Season 16 of Top Chef , which was sponsored by Maker’s Mark, were on hand for the Saturday night grand tasting to make dishes specially designed to compliment bourbon.

“For me I like things that are going to stand up to the bourbon,” said Chef Kelsey Barnard Clark, of KBC in Dothan, Alabama. “Tonight I made a gumbo, which is very rich and buttery and has a lot of fat, which makes it a good compliment with bourbon.”

“I think that everything tastes better with bourbon” said Chef Sara Bradley of Freight House in Paducah, Kentucky. “When I taste a bourbon and I’m looking for banana notes or caramel notes, those are going to pair better with a dessert. I like to start low proof and work your way up so you don’t blow your palate out. We have dinners where we just pair bourbons, we don’t do wine, we don’t do beer. I think that it’s just a beautiful spirit that doesn’t always get pairing love.”

Chef Nini Nguyen of Cook Space

Chef Nini Nguyen of Cook Space

The nice thing about pairing bourbon and food is that you don’t always have to be super traditional or dogmatic about it. “Today I made shrimp and grits because bourbon is made with corn and I just felt like, why not?” said Chef Nini Nguyen of Cook Space in Brooklyn, New York. “I wanted something with corn and I wanted to have an Asian twist, so I made a curry instead of a traditional shrimp and grits. It has a lot of spice and a little cilantro, which is very different from a traditional shrimp and grits.”

Tat’s not to say the only good food to be had was found on Saturday night. The cocktail and small plates competition is always a culinary delight for foodies and bourbon nerds alike. Chef Ouita Michel of the Ouita Michel Family of Restaurants took Best Classic Small Plate for her Woodford Blintz while representing Woodford Reserve along with her team—Chef Charles Taylor and Chef Nat Henton.

“We’ve gone all vegetarian here at the Bourbon Classic because I feel that one of the biggest comments I get from people who are attending these kinds of events is that there are never enough vegetables,” said Michel. “So tonight we are doing a cheese course first, which is a classic combination called the Woodford Blintz. It’s Kenny’s fromage blanc and Kentucky Rose cheese paired in a sautéed crepe with a little microgreens salad and a carrot ginger purée. We’ve paired that with a Woodford rye and sherry cocktail called the Up To Date.”

The Best Classic Pairing award went to the team representing Michter’s. Bartenders Jayma Neese and Sarah Thomas of Bob’s Steak and Chop House made a Rickhouse Sour paired with Chef Paul Sant’s dish, Bourbon Corn Mash Pancakes, which featured smoked salmon from Louisville’s own Shuckman's Fish Co. and Smokery.

The Friday night culinary awards

The Friday night culinary awards

Best Classic Cocktail went to Kelsey Hoffman of RYE, Representing Blade and Bow Kentucky Straight Bourbon, for her Bourbon Amaretto Sour. Best Contemporary Cocktail went to Karla Plott of ON3 at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, representing Heaven Hill, with her cocktail The Beetnik, made with beet infused bourbon. Best Contemporary Small Plate went to Chef Bruce Ucán of Mayan Cafe, representing Heaven Hill, with his winter tok-sel: tok-sel lima bean puree with roasted winter root vegetables and pumpkin. The Heaven Hill duo also took Best Contemporary Pairing.

But even the non winning dishes and cocktails were absolutely divine.

“I did a savory crepe tonight,” said Chef Joshua Moore from Volare Ristorante. “And that it stuffed with a Freedom Run Farm lamb neck, which as far as I’m concerned it the most beautiful cut on the lamb. I braised those lamb necks in Blanton’s Bourbon, which may seem disgraceful to put Blanton’s in a pot and braise it, but it is delicious. I also filled that with a Kenny’s fromage blanc, and the sauce on top is a toasted sage radish butter.”

That’s right, lamb necks braised in Blanton’s Bourbon. It doesn’t get more Kentucky than that.