Food: Where to find the classic Hot Brown Derby Day sandwich

And they’re off! For Derby Day, May 3, we’ve tracked down local versions of what could be Louisville, Ky.’s biggest contribution to food history — the Hot Brown sandwich.

Louisville may be only about a five-hour drive from Chicago, but the signature sandwich is still as hard to find outside of Kentucky as it is to place bets on who will win the Kentucky Derby. We did, however, find a few Chicago venues serving up variations on the sandwich.

The original Hot Brown has been on the menu at the Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville since it was developed in 1926, three years after the hotel opened. The earliest Hot Brown was an attempt at a late night alternative to ham and eggs. The chef of the hotel at the time, Fred K. Schmidt, developed the open-faced hot sandwich. He made the first Hot Brown with bacon and turkey, which in those days was reserved for Thanksgiving and other holiday meals. The original sandwich was topped with mornay sauce and broiled until the top was brown.

“The Hot Brown sandwich says a lot about Fred Schmidt as a chef,” said the Brown Hotel’s current chef, Joshua Bettis. “It shows he was always thinking about providing options to his guests. It shows business savvy and creativity to create a dish using items on hand. It shows he understood flavor profiles by incorporating creamy mornay sauce with the roasted turkey, adding the smokiness of bacon, acidity from the tomatoes and a texture element of the crunch of toast points. Genius.”

Bettis and his team still makes the sandwich just like Schmidt did during the roaring ‘20s. During Derby Week, the hotel serves as many as 1,200 of the beloved sandwiches. [For the recipe, visit]

“People love the Hot Brown for a couple reasons,” Bettis said. “They are eating a piece of culinary history. For guests driving through or staying at the hotel, it’s part of their vacation agenda to have a Hot Brown. For locals and repeat guests, hey, what else can we say? It’s just a great sandwich.”

A few chefs have brought the Kentucky classic to the Chicago area. We tracked down a Hot Brown at Derby’s in Lincoln Park. Like many variations, their Hot Brown includes a small heap of ham.

At the Horizon Cafe in East Lakeview, the Hot Brown is served with their signature homemade mashed potatoes. The sandwich is topped with a Parmesan cream sauce, bacon and grilled tomatoes.

“It’s a rich, open-faced sandwich. It’s a great comfort food,” said Horizon Cafe’s Nick Cocalis.

The only tricky part of the process, Cocalis said, is monitoring the sandwich while it broils so that it doesn’t burn.

We also tracked down the Hot Brown at Farmhouse Evanston, where Chef de Cuisine Stephen Paul gives the sandwich a little extra kick with a sprinkle of smoked paprika. And instead of the original version with mornay sauce — which is béchamel, but with cheese — Paul tops his Hot Brown with a simple béchamel sauce. In place of the pecorino Romano cheese on top of the sandwich at the Brown Hotel, he uses just a pinch of Parmesan.

“The Hot Brown is my personal interpretation from my many experiences with traditional versions in Kentucky,” Paul said. He worked for a time for Southern comfort food genius Art Smith. Lately, he has even more exposure to the regional cuisine. “Now that I’m dating a gal from Bourbon County, Kentucky, I’m held to an even higher standard than before,” he joked.

The Farmhouse Evanston team will be making plenty of Hot Browns and Mint Juleps on May 3 to toast the “fastest two minutes in sports.”

Which horse will they be cheering for? “As far as the Derby goes, I always root for the long shot,” Paul said.


Hot Brown

(makes one sandwich)

1 slice of white bread, toasted

4 ounces turkey, sliced

8-10 ounces béchamel sauce (see recipe below)

2 slices heirloom tomato

2 pieces Nueske’s bacon

1/2 ounce shaved Parmesan

Pinch of smoked paprika

Pinch of parsley, chopped


Lay bread flat in large serving bowl. Pile turkey on top of bread. Ladle generous portion of béchamel sauce covering turkey. Criss-cross stripes of bacon on top of the béchamel.

Place plate under broiler until béchamel becomes golden brown and bubbly.

Lay tomato slices on top of bacon. Finish with paprika, parmesan and parsley, to taste.

– Farmhouse Evanston Chef de Cuisine Stephen Paul


Béchamel Recipe

6 Tablespoons butter

8 Tablespoons all-purpose flour

4 cups whole milk

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 bay leaf, preferably fresh


In a medium saucepan, heat the butter over medium-low heat until melted. Add the flour and stir until smooth. Over low-medium heat, cook until the mixture turns a light, golden sandy color, about 6 to 7 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the milk in a separate pan with the bay leaf until just about to boil.

Add the hot milk to the butter mixture, one cup at a time, whisking continuously until very smooth. Bring to a boil. Cook 10 minutes, stirring constantly, then remove from heat. Season with salt and nutmeg, and set aside until ready to use.

— Courtesy of


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