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Preakness 2013 taps 'Top Chef' contestant to spruce up Pimlico's menus

Mike Isabella, of D.C.'s Graffiato, takes it up a notch

By Richard Gorelick, The Baltimore Sun

7:53 AM EDT, May 14, 2013

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Company's coming to Pimlico Race Course.

For the throngs expected at Saturday's Preakness, the hospitality team at Pimlico Race Course is bringing in 7,000 pounds of crab meat and 3,000 pounds of aged tenderloin. Did someone remember to get ice? Yes: 30,000 bags of frozen water are already in place.

Those were just a few of the items on the Preakness list of Tommy Inzer, director of hospitality for the Maryland Jockey Club, which has been hosting the Preakness since 1873.

Another item on Inzer's list — a celebrity chef.

This year, the Maryland Jockey Club is trying spice up the Preakness brand, and they've brought in "Top Chef" alumnus Mike Isabella to create the menus for the Turfside Terrace, where guests pay $315 for spectacular finish-line views, and for the Preakness Village, where corporations entertain on grand and semi-grand scales.

The most coveted Preakness Village invite will be Kevin Plank's Under Armour party, which has evolved in four short years into the Preakness' celebrity nerve center.

In past years, according to Inzer, the Under Armour hosts would ask for changes to the standard catering menu offered in Preakness Village. But not this year. Inzer said Under Armour signed off on this year's menu, which includes the kind of original, Italian-inspired fare served at Graffiato, the restaurant Isabella opened in Washington's Chinatown neighborhood in June 2011.

On Isabella's Preakness menu: a roasted beet salad with green peppercorn vinaigrette; coffee-dusted roasted tenderloin of beef, dry-rubbed, seared and sliced, accompanied by smoked fingerling potatoes and baby peas; and free-range pepperoni chicken, served with the pepperoni sauce that Isabella whipped up for the finals of "Top Chef All Stars."

"Every year for the Preakness we try to elevate things," said Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas. "By bringing in Mike Isabella, it has elevated it to another level. And with that, the people that were here last year and had a memorable time will have an even more memorable time this year."

The idea of bringing in a celebrity chef to design the Preakness menu, Inzer said, emerged out of last fall's planning meetings.

But the race to create a classier food experience at Preakness began in earnest with the Maryland Jockey Club's hiring of Inzer, whose resume includes luxury properties like The Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla., and the Park Lane Hotel in London.

Inzer was hired in March last year, not enough time to make big improvements before the annual May event. Inzer said he needed to see, and get through, last year's big day.

"Now I got it," Inzer said. "Now I know what we can do differently and here's how we can elevate the experience. It takes a lot of forward thinking: What's hot in the industry? How can we stay on the cutting edge?"

Once they committed to the idea of a celebrity chef, the next step was getting one. Isabella was on the planners' early list, Inzer said, in part because he had some Preakness experience. Isabella appeared at the 2011 Preakness, doing cooking demonstrations in the corporate village.

It turned out that Inzer knew someone with a direct connection to Isabella, so they asked him.

"I thought it would be a great opportunity," Isabella said. "I get to see the races, I get to hang out, and I get some people to see my food who don't always get to D.C."

Along with a chef-driven menu, the Maryland Jockey Club decided to get serious about where and how they got the food for Preakness. The 6,000 guests in the Preakness Village and Turfside Terrace will be treated, the jockey club said, to "the largest Farm to Table dining experience in the world."

Inzer stressed that farm-to-table doesn't necessarily mean local but regional. Crab cakes this year will be made with Maryland crab meat, he said, and the raw bar will feature Chesapeake Gold oysters from Hoopers Island.

Still, some of the efforts to go even regional were stymied, Isabella acknowledges, by the cold spring. Eight days before the Preakness, Jackie Ludden, a Washington-based consultant whom Inzer brought in to assist with the farm-to-table efforts, was waiting to hear if she'd be getting oregano from a New Jersey herb farm — or from Mexico.

"It's the single most difficult project I've had to do in my career," said Ludden. "It has been a huge effort by an army of people to make this happen."

"Certain things will come from Maryland or Virginia or Jersey," Isabella said. "Certain things will come from here and there. We only can do so much. My focal point is getting pepperoni from someone in Virginia [instead of ] getting it from Italy. We want to source everything locally, and whatever we can't get locally, we focus on domestically."

Baltimore chefs in and out of farm-to-table restaurants said they appreciated the efforts.

"At the end of the day it's more about sustainability and ethics," said Chris Becker of Fleet Street Kitchen, which serves a seasonal menu featuring produce grown at the restaurant's private farm. "[Farm to Table is about] not using factory farm ingredients and using local farms whenever with you can."

And standards for farm-to-table, Becker acknowledged, vary from place to place. "If it were true farm-to-table, you couldn't use lemons or limes," he said.

Chad Gauss, chef and owner of the Food Market in Hampden, said that farm-to-table doesn't have to mean local. "If they're looking at it as regional, it makes complete sense," Gauss said.

But both Becker and Gauss did have some concerns about other local credentials — Isabella's.

"I think it's great to have a celebrity chef," Gauss said. "And I respect every chef and every chef's craft. Any chef who chooses to put on the apron and put in the hours gets my support. But if it's farm-to-table, the chef should be from Baltimore."

"I was a little surprised that it wasn't a Baltimore-based chef," Becker said. "At the same time I just hired a chef, Chris Amendola, who wasn't from Baltimore."

One Baltimore chef will have a prominent role on Saturday. Jonah Kim, executive chef at Pabu, the Japanese restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore, will be creating the sushi bar in the International Pavilion, which this year is featuring a Japanese theme. And Kim's Pabu colleague, Tiffany Soto, a master sake sommelier, is supervising the beverage program for the pavilion's invited guests.

Isabella, who is opening three new restaurants this year, seemed ready for Saturday, but he acknowledged some fatigue.

"It's definitely a challenge. I've never done anything like this before, for 6,000 people," Isabella said. "But it's gone a lot smoother than I thought it would."

Not all of Isabella's fatigue was work-related, though. He had recently attended the Kentucky Derby.

"It was an amazing experience," Isabella said. "But I had a better time at Preakness."


The menu

Here's what chef Mike Isabella has planned for diners at the Turfside Terrace and Preakness Village:

The Bakery and Gourmet Cafe

Gourmet Coffee and Tea Selections, Fresh Squeezed Juices

Warmed Croissants and Muffins, Seasonal Fruit Salad, Yogurt Parfait

Village Raw Bar

Sponsored Vodka Bloody Mary Bar and Fresh Seafood Raw Bar

Deluxe Open Bar

Whiskey, Bourbon, Vodka, Rum, Scotch, Brandy

Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, White Zinfandel

Domestic and Imported Beer

The Official Preakness Cocktail — The Black Eyed Susan

Juices, Soft Drinks and Water

Main Buffet

Salads and Sides

Artisan Display of Fresh Baked Breads

Broccolini Peperonata Salad with Feta and Walnuts

Roasted Beet Salad with Green Peppercorn Vinaigrette and Smoked Yogurt

Whipped Sheep's Milk Ricotta with Tomato Caramel and Lemon Thyme

Roasted Cauliflower with Pecorino and Mint

Entrees

Chesapeake Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes with Guanciale, Kohlrabi Slaw, Drizzled with a Garlic Hollandaise

Coffee Dusted Roasted Tenderloin of Beef, Dry Rubbed, Seared & Sliced, Accompanied by Smoked Fingerling Potatoes and Baby Peas

Free Range Pepperoni Chicken with a Farro Risotto

Dessert

Rosemary Panna Cotta with Orange and Pine Nuts

Nutella Cookie Sandwiches

Mallow Pop Treats

Cold Stone Creamery


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