The Kentucky Hot Brown is a love letter to the commonwealth of Kentucky. Warm, inviting, and always in season just like bourbon, or Kentucky Hospitality. This isn’t an everyday meal but it’s the perfect meal for so many occasions. Cold winter’s night? Hot Brown. Hungover? Hot Brown. Need to prove Kentucky is the place to be for food? Hot Brown. You might not get the hype of the Kentucky Hot Brown now, but once you’ve made it for yourself then you’ll understand why it’s so revered.
The official story of the Hot Brown is that in the 1920s, the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky hosted lavish dinner dances. During these, patrons would work up quite the appetite and they’d normally get something like ham and eggs. But one night, the Head Chef Fred Schmidt, concocted a new dish with items he had on hand in the Hotel Kitchen: Turkey, Tomato, Mornay, Bacon, and Texas toast. He named it the Hot Brown after the hotel. The rest is history.
But the story goes deeper! When the Brown Hotel was closed in 1972, the dish became more widely available and started appearing on other Louisville Restaurants menus. During this time, the original recipe was thought to be lost and the whole thing became more of a general concept that other chefs and cooks alike could tinker with and really make their own. Eventually Hilton would reopen the Brown Hotel in 1984, where some reconstructing of the Hot Brown recipe began. But it wasn’t until 1990 when Chef Joe Castro was hired that the original recipe was discovered and brought back to its rightful home.
Now let me let you in on a little secret. In theory, the Brown Hotel shares their Hot Brown Recipe with everyone, you could find it on their website or maybe in some cookbooks. However, this isn’t the same recipe the hotel uses. Shocking, I know. According to Executive Chef James Adams of the Brown Hotel, there are three people that make the Mornay sauce. Him, and two others. This is a closely guarded secret that isn’t handed out to everyone in the kitchen, it’s passed down from Chef to Chef like a family heirloom. The recipe given to the public is designed for home use but there’s a little magic in the bulk batches at the Brown Hotel.
If you’ve been cooking for a while you’re probably familiar, whether you realize it or not, with the four Mother Sauces: Béchamel sauce (White Sauce), Espagnole Sauce (Brown Sauce), Tomato Sauce, and Velouté sauce. Most sauces in cooking are a variation of one of these, there's a reason there called the mother sauces. Mornay sauce, arguably one of the most defining features of a Kentucky Hot Brown, is simply a Béchamel sauce with cheese added. Now this all may sound intimidating but I’m going to make you feel a little better. Have you ever made mac and cheese? Then you’ve made Mornay sauce most likely.
The origin of Mornay is debated, a lot of people point the finger at Philippe de Mornay (1549 - 1623), a French Protestant Writer and member of the anti-monarchist movement. The main problem with this is that any cheese sauce developed during this time was based on velouté sauce because béchamel hadn’t been invented yet. We do know that Mornay didn’t appear in the Le Cuisinier Royal 10th edition in 1820, which would imply that it’s not older than the Paris restaurant Le Grand Véfour. However, we do know that Le Grand Véfour is where Mornay Sauce was introduced. That’s as far from a definitive answer as we’re going to get for now, but it is interesting to think about.