The Maryland Jockey Club has tapped celebrity chef Mike Isabella… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun…)
Company's coming to Pimlico Race Course.
For the throngs expected at Saturday's Preakness, the hospitality team at Pimlico Race Course is bringing in 7,000 pounds of crab meat and 3,000 pounds of aged tenderloin. Did someone remember to get ice? Yes: 30,000 bags of frozen water are already in place.
Those were just a few of the items on the Preakness list of Tommy Inzer, director of hospitality for the Maryland Jockey Club, which has been hosting the Preakness since 1873.
Another item on Inzer's list — a celebrity chef.
This year, the Maryland Jockey Club is trying spice up the Preakness brand, and they've brought in "Top Chef" alumnus Mike Isabella to create the menus for the Turfside Terrace, where guests pay $315 for spectacular finish-line views, and for the Preakness Village, where corporations entertain on grand and semi-grand scales.
The most coveted Preakness Village invite will be Kevin Plank's Under Armour party, which has evolved in four short years into the Preakness' celebrity nerve center.
In past years, according to Inzer, the Under Armour hosts would ask for changes to the standard catering menu offered in Preakness Village. But not this year. Inzer said Under Armour signed off on this year's menu, which includes the kind of original, Italian-inspired fare served at Graffiato, the restaurant Isabella opened in Washington's Chinatown neighborhood in June 2011.
On Isabella's Preakness menu: a roasted beet salad with green peppercorn vinaigrette; coffee-dusted roasted tenderloin of beef, dry-rubbed, seared and sliced, accompanied by smoked fingerling potatoes and baby peas; and free-range pepperoni chicken, served with the pepperoni sauce that Isabella whipped up for the finals of "Top Chef All Stars."
"Every year for the Preakness we try to elevate things," said Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas. "By bringing in Mike Isabella, it has elevated it to another level. And with that, the people that were here last year and had a memorable time will have an even more memorable time this year."
The idea of bringing in a celebrity chef to design the Preakness menu, Inzer said, emerged out of last fall's planning meetings.
But the race to create a classier food experience at Preakness began in earnest with the Maryland Jockey Club's hiring of Inzer, whose resume includes luxury properties like The Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla., and the Park Lane Hotel in London.
Inzer was hired in March last year, not enough time to make big improvements before the annual May event. Inzer said he needed to see, and get through, last year's big day.
"Now I got it," Inzer said. "Now I know what we can do differently and here's how we can elevate the experience. It takes a lot of forward thinking: What's hot in the industry? How can we stay on the cutting edge?"
Once they committed to the idea of a celebrity chef, the next step was getting one. Isabella was on the planners' early list, Inzer said, in part because he had some Preakness experience. Isabella appeared at the 2011 Preakness, doing cooking demonstrations in the corporate village.
It turned out that Inzer knew someone with a direct connection to Isabella, so they asked him.
"I thought it would be a great opportunity," Isabella said. "I get to see the races, I get to hang out, and I get some people to see my food who don't always get to D.C."
Along with a chef-driven menu, the Maryland Jockey Club decided to get serious about where and how they got the food for Preakness. The 6,000 guests in the Preakness Village and Turfside Terrace will be treated, the jockey club said, to "the largest Farm to Table dining experience in the world."
Inzer stressed that farm-to-table doesn't necessarily mean local but regional. Crab cakes this year will be made with Maryland crab meat, he said, and the raw bar will feature Chesapeake Gold oysters from Hoopers Island.
Still, some of the efforts to go even regional were stymied, Isabella acknowledges, by the cold spring. Eight days before the Preakness, Jackie Ludden, a Washington-based consultant whom Inzer brought in to assist with the farm-to-table efforts, was waiting to hear if she'd be getting oregano from a New Jersey herb farm — or from Mexico.
"It's the single most difficult project I've had to do in my career," said Ludden. "It has been a huge effort by an army of people to make this happen."
"Certain things will come from Maryland or Virginia or Jersey," Isabella said. "Certain things will come from here and there. We only can do so much. My focal point is getting pepperoni from someone in Virginia [instead of ] getting it from Italy. We want to source everything locally, and whatever we can't get locally, we focus on domestically."
Baltimore chefs in and out of farm-to-table restaurants said they appreciated the efforts.