Hot Brown: How a frustrated chef created Kentucky’s signature sandwich

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Hot Brown: How a frustrated chef created Kentucky’s signature sandwich

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What is arguably Louisville, Kentucky’s most iconic dish had a most unusual beginning.

It was created by a chef who was bored with serving up the same meal night after night to hungry people who had just finished dancing, a hotel employee with knowledge of the topic told Fox News Digital.

In 1926, The Brown Hotel in Louisville had a nightly dinner dance, which brought in crowds of more than 1,200 each night, according to the hotel’s website. 

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As the night stretched into morning, the patrons danced up quite an appetite and went down to the hotel’s restaurant for a bite to eat, the website said.

The chef, Fred Schmidt, soon grew frustrated with serving ham and eggs, the popular dish at the time. So he decided to improvise with ingredients he had on hand, Marc Salmon, human resources director at The Brown Hotel, told Fox News Digital in a phone interview.

The Hot Brown was invented in 1926 after a chef grew frustrated with making the same dish night after night — and decided to change it up.  (Chris Witzke)

Schmidt sliced the crusts off a thick piece of bread and put them in a ceramic skillet. 

He sliced turkey and put it on top of the bread, sliced a tomato in half, and then poured Mornay sauce on top and stuck it under the broiler. 

When it emerged, he added even more cheese. 

The Hot Brown was born. 

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Nearly 100 years later, the Hot Brown is still being served at The Brown Hotel, largely unchanged from its original recipe – except that the dish now comes topped with two slices of bacon arranged in an X. 

Nearly a century later, it remains a culinary staple in Louisville and Kentucky. 

“Legend has it that a server … walked past it and said, ‘It’s all the same color,'” Salmon said. 

“And so Schmidt said, ‘Fine’ — and put two slices of bacon on the top.” 

The Hot Brown was immediately a hit, Salmon said. Nearly a century later, it remains a culinary staple in Louisville and Kentucky. 

hot brown sandwich

The Hot Brown sandwich has since become an iconic food in Louisville and throughout Kentucky.  (Phil Vettel/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

“Whenever we hire a chef, we tell him, ‘You can do anything you want, but you can’t mess with the Hot Brown,'” Salmon said. “It’s got to be the original recipe.

At The Brown Hotel, each Hot Brown sandwich is served with “seven ounces of hand-carved turkey breast,” Salmon told Fox News Digital. 

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“One of the things that makes our [sandwich] very different from the imitators is that it’s fresh turkey breast that we’re roasting here in the kitchen and hand carving,” he said.

Only one or two people at the hotel are permitted to make the Mornay sauce, Salmon said, so that it stays consistent across the day. 

“We serve it breakfast, lunch, dinner, [at] banquets, late night,” he said. 

Legend has it that the characteristic "X" of bacon strips was a later addition to the sandwich. 

Legend has it that the characteristic “X” of bacon strips was a later addition to the sandwich.  (Chris Witzke)

A Mornay sauce, Salmon said, is when shredded cheese is added to a béchamel sauce. 

In the case of the Hot Brown, the chef adds Pecorino Romano, as well as nutmeg.

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The nutmeg is “an interesting little secret to the sauce,” he said. 

Salmon said he believes the Hot Brown has remained popular as it is “very authentic to the town.”

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He also told Fox News Digital, “When you live and work in a town that produces a great spirit like bourbon, craftsmanship is really important in this town. I think the fact that it’s so uniquely ‘us’ is what’s kept it alive.” 

Louisville, Kentucky

A scenic view of Louisville, Kentucky. “When you live and work in a town that produces a great spirit like bourbon, craftsmanship is really important in this town. I think the fact that it’s so uniquely ‘us’ is what’s kept it alive,” said Marc Salmon, human resources director at The Brown Hotel in Louisville, about the Hot Brown dish.  (Louisville Tourism)

Still, like many unique foods, the Hot Brown has its critics.

John Wise, an Ohio native who spent several years living and working in Louisville, recently shared on social media that he is “not a fan” of the Hot Brown.

“It’s a fork-and-knife operation.”

“Ingredients are all good, but why is it open-faced? Soggy bread is somehow good?” he wrote.

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And while the Hot Brown is technically a sandwich – albeit an open-faced one – it should not be eaten with one’s hands, Salmon said. 

“It’s a fork-and-knife operation,” he said. 

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