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Hot Brown By The Downs

February 10, 2021 Prepared By Dax

With the uncertainty in the world around us and the ability to freely roam the world greatly reduced, it is no wonder that the common consumer found comfort in controlling what they could through their food.  Eating what is familiar to you can be such a security blanket at times, but while it makes us feel good in the uncertainty portion, it still leaves us unfulfilled in the travel portion lost to many of us.  That need for experiences makes new products, with a “safe exploration” aspect to them, a very smart move.

Americans want to try new flavors, but they also have a high desire to feel safe or in control doing it. This combination of security and new experience from food can be delivered by exploring American regional classics as options for new development. One example is the Kentucky hot brown, a classic southern open-faced sandwich. It was originally developed about 100 years ago to feed the late-night partiers at the storied brown hotel and help soak up some of the excess from the night. Today’s equivalent may be how we currently look at the bacon cheeseburger we get in the wee hours of the morning after a robust night out.  While classified as an open-faced sandwich, the Kentucky hot brown is a fork and knife experience. You definitely don’t want to pick this thing up.


The hot brown was created in 1926 at the Browns Hotel in Louisville, KY. The brown hotel was a very popular socializing location and would draw over 1,200 people each night to dance in the hotel ballroom. Many of these dancers would find their way into the restaurant late into the evening and get a bite to eat after a night of libations. The Chef at the time was Fred Schmidt and he was looking for an upscale signature dish to feed the late-night dancers. Something substantial and tasty to help soak up the excess from the evening.


The Chef looked to create something that would be a signature dish. With his classical culinary background, it is not a far stretch to see that this is an elevated variation of the traditional Welsh Rarebit which is a cheese sauce over a piece of toast and then browned. He added thick sliced turkey, tomatoes and crisp bacon to the base and gave Kentucky the hot brown. Almost 100 years later and the Brown hotel still uses the original recipe and serves hundreds of this classic daily. During derby week they have been known to serve over 400 in a single day.


Traditionally a single piece of thickly sliced and toasted Texas toast was used. It acts as the base of this unique dish.


Turkey is the traditional meat. Originally it was a 1” thick slice. There are many current variations where they add meat such as ham or chicken but they primarily still include the turkey.


Tomatoes, usually a slice or two, but they can be quartered as well. Traditional recipe has them quartered, but sliced seems to be the norm today.

  • Bacon: crisp and on top as a garnish after broiling.
  • Other garnishes: Paprika and chopped parsley are common, as well as other shredded cheese.


A mornay sauce. This is a cheesy variation of the Bechamel sauce. Bechamel, one of the five French “mother” sauces, is milk-based and thickened with a roux, seasoned with nutmeg, onion and bay leaf.  Once the addition of cheese happens, you have a Mornay sauce. In the classic version of Mornay sauce Gruyere is the main cheese, however any cheeses may be used and still have it be a Mornay sauce.  In the hot browns case, it has historically been a hard cheese such as parmesan or pecorino Romano.


The standard recipe calls for a specific step of broiling the components to reach a golden gratin. Gratin is the method of lightly browning a dish with a cheese or breadcrumb top.

  • Toast on the bottom, then add turkey and tomatoes.
  • Cover the base generously with the Mornay sauce.
  • Broil dish to give it a slight gratin.
  • Garnish with sliced bacon and other garnishes as desired.


Upscale – TOP OF THE RICK HOT BROWN (the Rickhouse restaurant, Bardstown, KY) – A croissant topped with roasted turkey and chicken, eleven-cheese sauce and melted cheddar cheese. Garnished with fried pancetta and tomatoes.

Breakfast – KENTUCKY BREAKFAST HOT BROWN (Mammy’s Kitchen, Bardstown, KY)Oven roasted turkey and country ham piled on top of two pieces of Texas toast. Covered in Mammy’s parmesan cheese sauce and two eggs. Browned in the oven and topped with bacon and sliced tomatoes.

Appetizer – HOT VS. BROWN FRIES (SIDE BAR, Louisville, KY)- French fries, Beer cheese, roasted turkey, applewood bacon and tomatoes.

Pizza – HOT BROWN PIZZA (Sicilian Pizza and Pasta, Louisville, KY)Roasted turkey, bacon, tomato over creamy cheddar alfredo sauce.

Micro-pub rendition – HOTTER BROWN (Village Anchor, Louisville, KY) Fresh French bread, pulled fried chicken, oven-roasted tomatoes, candied Anchor bacon, Mornay sauce.

Upscale brunch – OPEN FACE HAM SAMI (Beatrice & Woodsley, Denver, CO): House-smoked ham, Mornay sauce and toasted sourdough make up the foundation, English pea puree, a bright salsa Verde sandwich is capped with a sunny-side-up egg. 


This classic regional sandwich offers another slight glimpse into American culinary history and a very solid profile for a safe new product development base that provides comfort and experience.  Use your imagination as to how you can convert this classic into a retail bowl, snack profile, pizza or even an appetizer.

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