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.”
And, mercifully I'm living in a spot where – literally down the street – there is a spot for that kind of luck. There is a lot of money in Lexington. It's these ponies. They are so darn cute. Even if you're not on farms here on Lexington, you're driving past thoroughbreds every day. Every day. They truly “ring” the city. It's something I love so much about Lexington, the wood fences and baby ponies running around. And we've got all these people who want to lose their money in horse racing. There is plenty of money to spend on whatever they want.
SI: Hey, eating your money by hiring a private chef is arguably better than gambling it away.
AH: Yeah, this is definitely the land of gambling. But Mr. Jackson surprised me on that, also. He had a great horse named Curlin a few years ago. It was the Preakness or something, and I said, “Did you bet on him?” — assuming that of course he had. “I already bet on him when I bought him,” is what he said. Right then the hundred dollars I had spent [betting] wasn't so exciting.
SI: Is that difficult living in a place where that win high, and “lose hard” low, is always pulsating, be it through races or those expensive horse breeding gambles Jackson was referring to?
AH: Well, it's actually very hopeful. If you lose [a race], you always have another possibility in the stable. At least if you're breeding like Mr. Jackson was. And even though statistically you're never going to run a profit — maybe one horse wins Derby every few years, not good odds — the baby ponies are just so darn hopeful.
SI: And this time of year you've got a lot of Derby parties, so there's always that. With Jackson and Banke, you've suddenly got Californians in the middle of very old school Southern culture. How's that worked out?
AH: It's been fun, really, with Mr. Jackson and Barbara from Sonoma. I've tried to do half and half on menus — Kumomoto oysters and Dungeness crab with beer cheese and fried chicken.
SI: And mint juleps, of course.
AH: Yes, nasty mint juleps [Laughs]. No, they're the worst. Truly. You can't go adding sugar to bourbon, it's already sweet.
SI: Maybe you should come up with an improved version for us.
AH: Well, you've got so little to work with. It's literally bourbon, sugar, and mint. What are you going to do? Bourbon with fresh lemonade – now that's a great drink with potential. On my favorite racing day, Oaks Day [“Ladies First,” when the fillies race the day before the Derby], they have a drink called a “Filly” with Chambord, vodka, fresh blackberries. That's great.
SI: So, how did a wine giant like Jackson do with all that bourbon?
AH: Oh, I have a funny story there. So the first Derby party Mr. Jackson and Barbara had several years ago, they invited something like 300 people. I was cooking the food, and Barbara comes to tell me what wines were going to be served. There was no bourbon on her list. I told her: “This is the South. You have to have liquor. This is not California. We're just coming around to drinking wine here.”
SI: And it's the Kentucky Derby.
AH: Yeah, so she says, “Do you really think people will want liquor?” And then wants to send me to the store to “buy a few bottles” just in case. We are having 300 people to a Derby party! “I need CASES of bourbon. CASES of vodka. We need LOTS of liquor. Southerners drink a lot of hard alcohol.”
After that, they got it. But you know, they are wonderful people. It is just a huge regional difference. If you are a winemaking family in California, you probably don't need a lot of liquor at your parties. Everyone is going to drink wine.
SI: There aren't a lot of bourbon cocktails on tasting dinners in Sonoma.
AH: Exactly. But we're sitting here a mile away from Bourbon County. Ten miles from Versailles, Kentucky [where several distillers, including Woodford Reserve, are located]. We do tobacco, bourbon and Kentucky fried chicken. People need bourbon here.
SI: And fried chicken.
AH: It's on my menu a lot. Mac n' cheese, too. Have I told you about that? How to make the best?
SI: No, not yet.
Check back for part two of our interview with Huffman on what it's like being “household staff” on a Southern estate in the 21 century, true Southern cooking (“Just add cheese, mayo, and fry it. And of course you have to monogram it…”) and her grandmother's mac n' cheese tips.