This weekend's Kentucky Derby may mark the beginning of summer mint julep season, but for Amber Huffman, the private chef at two Lexington, Kentucky thoroughbred racehorse farms, Saturday is all about wine. "Mint juleps are nasty, the worst! You can't go adding sugar to bourbon; it's already sweet," says the 35-year-old Kentucky native. She is quick to point out that her Julep bias has nothing to do with having been the private chef for California wine billionaire Jess Jackson, the pioneering legacy behind Kendall-Jackson who passed away in Sonoma a few weeks ago at the age of 81 (Jackson and his wife, Barbara Banke, own Stonestreet thoroughbred racehorse farm in Lexington). No, Huffman is a believer in bourbon as a purely solitary reflection.
Turn the page for the chef's reflections on Jackson ("a truly wonderful man") and why even California wine drinkers with limitless bottle budgets really should let Southerners stock the bar on Derby Day. Duly noted.
Full disclosure: This author attended the same college as Huffman, but knew the chef only "peripherally" as Huffman aptly describes. Ah, the joys (?) of Facebook.
Jackson got into horse breeding in the past few years because, as Wall Street Journal wine reporter Lettie Teague so neatly sums up in this tribute: "He believed that both wine and racing were 'for the people.' He wanted to make wine that was accessible and enjoyable to "regular" drinkers... [and] bring horse racing back to the time of Seabiscuit, when ordinary people, not millionaires, lined the track."
In 2005, he and Banke bought Stonestreet Farms (Jackson's middle name), a 460-acre thoroughbred racing farm. The five barns are -- of course -- named after wine varietals (Chardonnay, Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel). Huffman lives at the neighboring Gainesway Thoroughbred Stallion Farms, where she is also the private chef for Gainesway owners Angela and Anthony Beck. She cooks for the California wine family whenever they are in town, as Banke is now for Derby week.
Squid Ink: So how did you wind up a private chef on thoroughbred horse farms? That's a pretty niche cooking gig.
Amber Huffman: It's a long story. I've lived here at the Gainesway farm for about two years, but I've worked for the Becks and at Stonestreet, which is Mr. Jackson's farm, for about five years. I didn't want to work in a restaurant anymore, that's just a different life. I wanted to do small parties, not big ones where you are tossing out 3,000 boxed lunches. But I also wanted to live in Kentucky. I really painted myself into a corner on that one. It's also a very closed community here, the horse world.
Basically, I caught the attention of another farm owner after meeting a friend of a chef at another horse farm. And after that, I had all the farm business I wanted. Mr. Jackson and Barbara would come in town for about a week every month. Now, obviously, is a hard time. But Barbara is here this week for the Derby. It's quieter this year.
SI: Yes, very sorry to hear about Jackson.
AH: He was a wonderful man. Truly. And he taught me a lot. I'm the type of person who would say maybe I just got lucky to have this job [on a horse farm]. But Mr. Jackson hated the word lucky. He heard me say that once, that I felt "lucky" and he turned around and said, "I don't want to ever hear you say that again. You made your own luck. Don't ever sell yourself short."