Students join fans in return to iconic Kentucky Derby
The nation’s longest-running major sporting event — the Kentucky Derby — ran for the 147th time May 1, and 24 Pennsylvania College of Technology students were on hand in the kitchens of historic Churchill Downs to lend their culinary skills.
While Penn College hospitality students’ work at the Kentucky Derby has been a tradition for more than 25 years, the students were unable to attend the 146th running of the Derby in 2020, when, due to the pandemic, it ran without guests in the stands in September instead of its traditional time slot on the first Saturday in May.
The students were grateful to return in 2021.
“Going to the Kentucky Derby has been one of the best experiences I’ve ever been a part of, and I look forward to going again someday,” said Sarah Wolf, a baking and pastry arts student from White Haven.
“It was obviously an exceptional year, and no surprise, the students did exceptionally well,” said Chef Charles R. Niedermyer, Penn College instructor of baking and pastry arts/culinary arts, who accompanied the group. “I feel like they really rose to the challenge. They did it without complaining; they really embraced the opportunity. We haven’t been able to travel or have visiting chefs, so to be able to go and have this experience in our field, they were really ecstatic to be there, and there was no room, no energy for anything else. That made my job super easy.”
Although attendance at the iconic event — a bucket-list experience for many — was limited to about half of a typical year, students were just as busy, due to a smaller food and beverage staff and extra steps in preparing the food.
The extra steps — like individually packaging desserts and salads that in a typical year might be placed on a platter for a buffet — were among many devised by Levy Restaurants to make the event as safe as possible for guests and employees. Levy Restaurants interviews Penn College students for weeklong paid Derby Week internships and handles food service at Churchill Downs.
Despite a smaller guest list, with a full racing schedule, the hours were just as long, and any extra time was devoted to making the food even more special for spectators.
“The food was as good as anything you would find anywhere else, even though we were serving thousands and thousands of guests,” Niedermyer said. “It was awesome for the students to experience that.”
Shannon A. Getz, of Millersburg, was stationed in the facility’s “main kitchen,” where prep work is done for many of the other kitchens.
“It was a lot of teamwork,” said Getz, who is pursuing degrees in culinary arts technology and applied management.
“I am very proud of the group in all,” she added. “Everyone came together and did what was needed of them to help pull it together, to help the chefs in charge of the kitchens.”
Staff in the main kitchen were also moved to other kitchens as needed, which provided her additional opportunities, including joining another student to run a cart with an “anti-griddle” in the Jockey Club Suites. Like a traditional griddle, an anti-griddle has a flat plate, but instead of heating food, it flash freezes it. On Oaks Day, the duo made macaron ice cream sandwiches, and they prepared Derby Pie a la mode on Derby Day.
“I really liked being able to jump in different places and help where needed,” Getz said. “I enjoyed that I got to see the flow of production from being in the main kitchen to another kitchen, and seeing where all the work we did in the Main Kitchen went.”
Wolf worked in the Turf Club, a members-only private dining room that overlooks the racetrack and prepares most of its own fresh menu each day. Since the students were unable to participate in 2020, she was among the majority of the group in attending the Kentucky Derby for the first time this year.
“Going to Derby, I was very nervous about what type of work I would be doing, where I would be, and who I would be working with,” she said. “As everything started to fall into place when we got to Churchill Downs, my trepidation began to fade away.”
“Usually, close to half the team is returnees who have that leadership and experience walking in the door,” Niedermyer explained. “That was definitely a dynamic and all the more impressive considering how few had been there prior.”
“I think one of the hardest challenges for me was keeping up with the high level of production and multitasking,” Wolf said, but she found her stride. “I am proud of being assigned to run part of my own station for dinner dessert service for a couple of days.”
Six members of the student contingent were selected to work in the brand new, state-of-the-art kitchen for the sixth-floor Matt Winn’s Steakhouse.
The group also had opportunities to interact with chefs from around the nation who pitched in for the event, two of them Penn College alumni: Magdalen C. Bennett, a 2018 culinary arts and systems grad, served as a support chef in Aristides Lounge, and Rebecca L. Rizzo, a 2015 baking and pastry arts and 2018 applied management alumna, managed a dining room.
“When we would get some time, mostly during prep, you could ask the chefs questions, and everyone there is so kind and willing to help you learn and grow so that you can get as much as you can from this experience,” Getz said.
Even those who didn’t attend are benefiting, as Niedermyer brings the experience back to the classroom. He already had conversations with students in his facilities planning course about this year’s innovations.
Getz is grateful that she experienced it firsthand.
“I am very thankful the school was able to make plans so that we could go on this trip,” she said. “Even with it being one of the hardest weeks of my life, from being exhausted to being so sore all I could do was fall asleep, I would do this over and over again because it was also the best time I’ve had.”
Students completing Kentucky Derby internships, listed by major:
Kayla M. Wilson, of Williamsport.
Applied management and baking and pastry arts
Corrina C. Blose, of Coplay; Gloria F. Boronow, of Denver; Dane S. Druckenmiller, of Hellertown; Abby E. George, of Harrisburg; Rebecca E. High, of Willow Street; Patrick E. Hufnagle, of Antes Fort; Alana L. Lapenta, of Camp Hill; Danielle R. Wesneski, of Williamsport; and Alexis N. Youse, of Pottstown.
Applied management and culinary arts technology
Madison Y. Cooper, of Harrisburg; Shannon A. Getz, of Millersburg; CC N. Hawkins, of Williamsport; Tiana M. Rawls-White, of Northumberland; and Aaron Timmons, of Greencastle.
Baking and pastry arts
Josephina R. Hanzel, of Wellsville; and Sarah Wolf, of White Haven.
Culinary arts and systems
Noah E. Siegle, of Milesburg.
Culinary arts technology
Bryan Aguilar, of Reading; Alexis J. Muthler-Harris, of Williamsport; Kyle A. Palmer, of Linden; and Brad K. Sinsabaugh, of Picture Rocks.
AJ Wiles, of Glenville.
Mercedes M. LeBlanc, of Williamsport.