Churchill Downs Executive Chef David Danielson and one of the culinary carts he helped develop with FirstBuild. | Courtesy of GE Appliances

Some Kentucky Derby guests this year will get to nosh on (and witness the creation of) some gourmet treats thanks to new culinary carts developed by Churchill Downs Executive Chef David Danielson and FirstBuild, the co-creation community backed by GE Appliances.

The upscale carts, developed and manufactured at FirstBuild within five weeks, feature a powder-coated steel frame, stainless steel work surface, Sapele Mahogany wood, a 1,200-watt induction burner and a flash freeze surface that will enable Danielson’s team to instantly create cold treats.

The carts will make their public debut Saturday in the Starting Gates Suite for Opening Night at Churchill Downs during the Fund for the Arts event.

Danielson told Insider that the final product far surpassed his expectations.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “It looks like something that came off … a showroom floor.”

The chef said he and his team wanted to figure out a way to enhance the guest experience at Churchill in the suite areas but could not find any equipment that provided the needed mobility, functionality and flexibility he wanted.

Danielson said that most pieces of equipment perform just one task, but in the suites during Derby, he wanted to be able to quickly switch between hot and cold foods for small groups or large groups and fix the items in front of the guests to create a more interactive experience.

The FirstBuild folks had previously done work for Danielson at his restaurant, the Old Stone Inn & Tavern, in Simpsonville, so the chef brought the challenge and a basic idea for a solution to the microfactory on East Brandeis.

In a hackathon last month, the culinary artists from Churchill Downs joined forces with world-class engineering and design talent at FirstBuild to brainstorm solutions to the chef’s challenge and to quickly manufacture a working prototype.

The FirstBuild product development team, from left product development technicians Jake Moore, Jody Stull and Robbie Sanders; Operations Leader Randy Reeves; Product Developer Scott Tarr and Product Development Technician Jeremy Turner. | Courtesy of Larry Portaro/Twitter

FirstBuild President Larry Portaro told Insider that Danielson had a basic idea and some sketches but wanted input around height, spacing, materials, manufacturing and other matters.

During their first meeting, the chef and FirstBuild staff sat around a six-foot plastic table, and within a few hours had developed a basic, initial cart made of plastic. The chef later trucked a wooden beta model to Churchill Downs to let his team interact with it and provide feedback.

Scott Tarr, a senior design engineer at FirstBuild, said that the team had to think about the cart’s size, components, functionality and appearance, to make sure the mobile kitchen fit with Churchill Downs’ standards and appeared inviting for guests.

Some of the considerations involved what types of wheels to use and whether the operators should be able to lock the wheels. (Yes, the wheels need to be locked to immobilize the cart while the staff is using it.)

After various iterations, FirstBuild staff built a final version, used high-end equipment, including a 4,000-watt Amada laser that cut the stainless steel surface and which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. FirstBuild staff also finished, welded and polished the cart by hand.

‘Unbelievable’

Four identical carts were delivered this week, and Danielson said the quality of craftsmanship and the gadgets’ versatility are truly impressive.

Danielson said he can craft hot, savory meals and quickly switch to cold, sweet desserts.

“The range of dishes and what we can do is really unbelievable,” he said.

Indeed, while the chef has some menu items in mind, he said that at this point he doesn’t even yet know what exactly he’ll be serving during Derby week because the carts’ capabilities and versatility are so far beyond his expectations that he is constantly thinking about using them for new culinary creations.

And, he said, he and his team can easily change menu items through the year, so that dishes he’ll serve from the carts at Derby will be different from those guests can enjoy in June or November.

While the chef said that he probably could have asked a local fabricator to create a kitchen cart, he said the end result would have been very different because FirstBuild has “unbelievable resources” in both equipment and staff with a background in mass production and world-class design.

Danielson said that the new carts also illustrate the benefits of collaboration, and they will showcase — to guests from around the world — the great talent and cool products Louisville has to offer.

Larry Portaro

Portaro said that each of the carts costs “thousands,” though similar carts adapted for a residential setting may cost a lot less because they could be custom-designed for every-day use, to make barbecue ribs on the back porch, for example.

As for how much Danielson and Churchill Downs paid to get the carts made, Portaro said the parties came to terms that were “mutually agreeable.”

Portaro said the Churchill Downs’ team has invited the FirstBuild staff to the track to see — and taste — how the carts are being used.

“It’d be great if I could catch a glimpse of one of these in action,” he said.

Danielson said that while he expects that the carts will improve the experience for tens of thousands of Derby guests, the new gadgets also will boost the fun and creativity of the culinary crew.

For the most part, he said, Derby is a logistics exercise that involves lots of planning and preparation and, on the days of the races, execution. The carts will enable the staff to directly interact with the guests, which personalizes the experience but also, for the staff, will return a bit of fun and creativity into the massive and carefully planned event.

Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.