Kentucky Burgoo, Bourbon Slush and Beer Cheese with Bavarian Pretzels, shared by executive chef (and Kentucky native) Michael Patria of the Four Seasons Hotel in Atlanta. (Photo by Chris Hunt/Special)
Photo: Chris Hunt
Photo: Chris Hunt

Make these Kentucky-style delights for your Kentucky Derby dinner

May 5 we’ll be watching Kentucky Derby number 144, the latest in a continuous string of races that have been run since 1875. A sporting event with that much history deserves a party, don’t you think? If you’re from Kentucky, that pretty much goes without saying.

Michael Patria, executive chef at Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta, comes from Junction City, Kentucky, just outside Danville. “That’s where my mom grew up and I spent summers and spring breaks there staying with my grandparents.”

His parents moved to Georgia, but his mom didn’t let go of her Kentucky traditions. “When I was growing up, the big party for us was our Derby party. Every year my mother would set up a buffet with beer cheese and crackers along with pretzels and other breads. There’d be a crockpot at the end of the table filled with Kentucky Burgoo, and my dad would be in the kitchen stirring up Bourbon Slush.”

His mom would also serve Kentucky Hot Browns (the state’s famous open-faced sandwich of turkey slices on white bread toast topped with cheese sauce and then browned under the broiler), beaten biscuits with country ham, a pimento cheese ball, caviar beggar’s purses, strawberry shortcakes and mint juleps.

Preparing for that Derby party involved the whole family. “I have two brothers and one sister and all of us, including my dad, are handy in the kitchen. We’d all kind of jump in and help my mom. Oftentimes my Mamaw, her mother, would be there as well. In fact, many of the recipes originated with Mamaw. We’d spend a couple days prepping the food and then the day of the party was always a last-minute scramble.”

Michael Patria, executive chef of Bar Margot at Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta, shows us how to make his family's Kentucky Burgoo. The perfect stew for your derby party. (Erica A. Hernandez/AJC)

His dad’s Bourbon Slush is a family recipe of orange and lemon juice mixed with bourbon and served with crushed ice. “I think some people add pineapple juice. We like it with black tea and a garnish of orange. The mint juleps were served in fancy julep cups but the Bourbon Slush was always served in 8-ounce table water glasses.”

The beer cheese was another family staple his mom adapted from a recipe she found in a cookbook, but it was Patria who added soft pretzels to the family repertoire. “I think the pretzel thing came about because when I was younger, I loved soft pretzels and because there’s a large German population in Kentucky, there are always good soft pretzels around.”

Now Patria has taken that love of pretzels to the next level, making his own and adding a little rye flour. “You can form them into any shape you want, twisted or sticks or little pretzel nubs. One year a friend and I were playing around and we shaped them into horses. I like adding the rye because its sweet earthiness pairs so well with beer.”

Executive Chef Michael Patria gives the thumbs-up to the final test of a real Kentucky Burgoo, when you can stand a spoon up in it. Styling by chef Michael Patria and Michelle Labovitz. CHRIS HUNT/SPECIAL
Photo: For the AJC

The burgoo is his grandmother’s recipe and one he loved growing up. “It’s a hearty, filling stew and we used to say it’s not a true burgoo if a spoon inserted in the bowl doesn’t stand up on its own.” The meats in the stew can be any combination you like but there is always a variety of meats. “My grandfather had pigs on the farm so there’d always be pork in our burgoo, and we hunted so there’d also be some venison.”

It’s a great dish for a party because it’s good when freshly made, but even better when made ahead of time and reheated on the day of the party. While the Patrias might also serve beer cheese and pretzels at their big Super Bowl party, the burgoo was reserved just for Derby celebrations.

Patria says he was always an adventurous eater. “I loved just about any kind of food you could put in front of me. I helped with the cooking when I could, but I was always ready to be the one to do the tasting. When I was about 15, I got a job as a dishwasher at a little hibachi steakhouse down the street. One of the prep cooks was injured and they needed someone to help out. That was me. I loved the camaraderie in the kitchen and after my first year of college decided to switch to culinary school and make it a real career path.”

As Patria says, “I grew up around good food and that’s what inspired me to get into the business I’m in.”

In May 5, the Derby will be on TV at Bar Margot, and lucky diners will enjoy Kentucky Burgoo, Hot Browns, beer cheese, mint juleps and Bourbon Slush.

You’ll be ready for The Run for the Roses this Saturday with three recipes from Michael Patria of the Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta.

Beer Cheese with Bavarian Rye Pretzels. Styling by chef Michael Patria and Michelle Labovitz. CHRIS HUNT/SPECIAL
Photo: For the AJC

Beer cheese

Our photo features a white beer cheese. To duplicate that at home, use white cheddar and white Worcestershire. You can also make this cheese with yellow cheddar and regular Worcestershire sauce. Patria says the beer is important, “Use an ale, none of that light stuff!” And he prefers Coleman’s dry mustard. But for the Tabasco, he’s OK with any hot sauce you like.

Bavarian Rye Pretzels

The recipe calls for diastatic malt powder, an ingredient that helps promote rising and a brown crust. You can purchase it online at sources like King Arthur Flour. If you don’t want to make the investment in diastatic malt powder when you only need a teaspoon, Patria suggests substituting a teaspoon of honey or a teaspoon of granulated sugar.

When they make these pretzels at the Four Seasons, they dip them in a solution of lye before baking. The lye helps produce that characteristic golden brown bagel crust, but it is not an ingredient most home cooks have in their pantry. We’ve adapted the recipe to use a baking soda bath but Patria cautions the crust will be golden brown rather than the dark brown the lye produces.

Kentucky Burgoo. Styling by chef Michael Patria and Michelle Labovitz. CHRIS HUNT/SPECIAL
Photo: For the AJC

Kentucky Burgoo

This recipe may remind you of Brunswick Stew with its variety of meats and mix of vegetables. Made traditionally, the Burgoo could include meat on the bone and a range of game such as venison, squirrel and duck.

Patria’s family uses fresh corn, lima beans and okra when possible, but frozen will do in a pinch. His grandmother would add the potatoes with their peel since she always said that’s where the vitamins were, but Patria likes to peel his potatoes for this more “refined” version.

And he says, “It’s widely argued that burgoo is not burgoo unless you can stand a spoon in it, so if you prefer a thicker stew, simply reduce the liquid to desired thickness.” If you wish, serve your burgoo garnished with colorful, tart sorrel leaves, as Patria does, but definitely with toasted bread. He likes the country wheat from Alon’s Bakery.

Bourbon Slush. Styling by chef Michael Patria and Michelle Labovitz. CHRIS HUNT/SPECIAL
Photo: For the AJC

Bourbon Slush

You’ll need a large bowl to mix this together, or several pitchers where you divide things equally.

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