Hometown Hungers: Kentucky Hot Brown

This signature sandwich of the Bluegrass State comes heaped with hot turkey and drenched in a sumptuous Mornay sauce.
Hot Brown from Brown Hotel

The history of Kentucky’s Hot Brown is as deliciously decadent as the state’s signature dish itself.

This hot turkey sandwich that comes drenched in a silky Mornay sauce got its start in the 1920s. It was dreamed up in the kitchen of the glamorous Brown Hotel, which had gained notoriety among Louisville locals and travelers alike for its legendary weekend dance parties. Chef Fred Schmidt needed a hearty dish to satisfy the masses and keep the celebration going during those swinging days of the Jazz Age. Accomplishing this task was no easy feat, as there were up to 2,000 people in attendance on any given weekend. But Chef Schmidt’s culinary talents proved to be formidable, as he transformed a few humble ingredients that he already had on hand — brioche bread, turkey, bacon and tomatoes — into a truly indulgent creation perfect for the hotel’s partygoers. He made an open-faced sandwich and then smothered it in a classic Mornay sauce (his featured Pecorino Romano, butter, cream and nutmeg).

Ninety years later, the Kentucky Hot Brown’s legacy has endured. The Brown Hotel’s culinary team stays true to the original recipe by layering all-natural turkey breast, hickory-smoked double-cut bacon and just-ripe tomatoes on a slab of brioche bread. The kicker, of course, is that sumptuous Mornay sauce that blankets the creation. The bread is flanked by two toast points, then baked till the toast is crisp and the sauce bubbly. You can order the sandwich anytime (including via room service), but for the ultimate experience, take in the majesty of the second-floor lobby and order a mint julep while you’re waiting for your Hot Brown.

Hot Brown from Keeneland

This sandwich may have been born at the Brown Hotel, but the claim for the best Hot Brown has competition from outside of Louisville. Travel east from Derby City to Lexington, where locals insist that the top contender for the crown can be had at Keeneland Racecourse. Chef Marc Therrien builds his version by starting with a base of crustless, thick-cut slices of toasted sourdough bread, then adding layers of slow-roasted turkey breast slices cloaked in Mornay sauce, diced Roma tomatoes and chopped bacon, and finishing his masterpiece with thinly sliced scallions and a sprinkling of shredded Gruyère cheese. The dish is baked in an individual cast-iron skillet until it’s hot and the Gruyère is just blistered.

Hungry for a Hot Brown but not heading to the Bluegrass State anytime soon? Food Network’s got you covered with this collection of top restaurants around the country serving classic and gourmet interpretations of the famous sandwich.

Photography courtesy of Chris Witzke and Marc Therrien

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