Maysville Community and Technical College culinary students recently gained real world cooking experience at the Kentucky Derby.
Patrick Zemba, assistant professor of the culinary classes at MCTC, had 10 of his culinary students work as support chefs during derby week at Churchill Downs in Louisville recenrtly, where they learned how to serve hundreds of people over the course of the event.
According to Zemba, Levy Restaurants, a food service contractor for several well attended sporting events, muster the help of support chefs from all around the country to assist in making and serving food for various events and venues.
“With Churchill Downs, a lot of people don’t realize there’s 14 or 15 restaurants in that place and they can’t staff it fully year round,” he said. “So what they do is they have a lot of support chefs, which what that means is if someone is working in Detroit, Mich. Levy puts out that the ‘derby is this week, we need x amount of people.’ They sign up for it, and they travel to whatever venue they’re at for that week.”
In some cases, Zemba said Levy Restaurants works closely with a number of schools, to give them experience in the field as well as a glimpse of the business as a potential job opportunity. To have his students undergo this opportunity, Zemba worked with Jen Cooper, Human Resources Director at Churchill Downs for Levy Restaurants in April last year to arrange for his students to work during derby week.
MCTC was the only school in Kentucky to participate in the derby, and only one of three in the nation with the other two schools being from Pennsylvania and New York.
Culinary students from MCTC also worked the derby and the Breeder’s Cup in 2018.
After being greeted by Levy last week, Zemba said the students began their work at 7 a.m. on Tuesday and then left at 5 p.m., which was the easy day of the week.
“From Wednesday on, I know I, myself, worked 70 hours within five days and the students were real close to what I did,” he said.
Not only was this opportunity able to give students valuable experience, but Zemba said it was also a way for the students to learn from professionals, as well as an excellent networking opportunity. One student in particular actually received several job offers when he was there, according to Zemba.
That student, John Abner, had his first experience with working at the derby last Saturday. When he described his time spent there throughout the week, he said it was unmatched, when compared to the scale of restaurants he and his colleagues are used to.
“We’ve all kind of been in the restaurant field, whether it be a small kitchen or a mom and pop kitchen or steakhouse, but once you get into an environment like that, to where you’re feeding thousands of people, it’s just a whole other experience,” he said. “We got to see equipment that none of us had ever seen before.”
While at Churchill Downs, Abner was given several job offers; one to travel with the NASCAR circuit and cook as a support chef for the events, another to work at the Kentucky Horse Park, and one to work at a restaurant in Oregon through Levy Restaurants.
One part of the experience that stood out to Abner was the hard work put into each day.
“It was super tough, we went on very few hours of sleep and we were running on 12, 14, 16 hour days just trying to get everything crammed in to be done,” he said. “We would have to cook all morning to get prepared for what we were about to do that day and then all afternoon prepping for the next morning to come it.”
Throughout the week Abner said he kept a step counter on him as he worked, and on his busiest day he said he clocked in around 38,000 steps.
“The restaurant business is rough,” Zemba said. “It’s not a 9-5 job, if you get a lunch break you’re lucky, if you get to sit down for five minutes you’re lucky, so I push my students hard; and they might not understand in the beginning, but after the end of the derby they understand why I push them so hard.”