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Kentucky’s Top Chef Tour

Bourbon, burgoo, hot browns and other iconic Kentucky dishes take center stage alongside the contestants in this year’s season of “Top Chef.” The American reality television series is being filmed at various locations in the state, including Louisville, Lexington and Lake Cumberland.

“‘Top Chef’ has helped put us on the map as a culinary destination,” said Kristen Branscum, commissioner of Kentucky’s Department of Travel and Tourism. “They featured not only some of our destinations and attractions but also our incredible food.”

Groups can use the 16th season of the show as a guide to create their own foodie tour of the Bluegrass State. Here are some “Top Chef” sites to include on your next trip to Kentucky.

Louisville 

Churchill Downs

On the first episode of “Top Chef: Kentucky,” a bugle call that typically starts the Kentucky Derby signaled the start of the contestants’ visit to Churchill Downs. After learning about the horse track, the contestants were charged with creating dishes for a mock Derby party.

“There is no better way to start up the season of ‘Top Chef’ in Kentucky than a call to post,” said Branscum. “Churchill Downs is a bucket list item for many people. The challenge of throwing your own Derby party showcases the international appeal of Kentucky.”

Groups can visit Churchill Downs during its racing season or throughout the year with a visit to the adjacent Kentucky Derby Museum. Dedicated to American Thoroughbred racing, the museum lets guests relive the Derby experience with a 360-degree theater experience and other interactive exhibits.

Signature Group Experience: The “It’s My Derby” group package offers the ultimate Derby experience with a tour of the museum, a guided walking tour of Churchill Downs and an afternoon of live racing. Participants create their own Derby hats and listen to professional betting tips.

Signature Culinary Experience: Walnuts, chocolate chips and whipped cream combine to create a quintessential Kentucky dessert: the Derby Pie. The Derby Cafe Express serves this treat for museum visitors.

Muhammad Ali Center

The Muhammad Ali Center honors former boxing champion and Louisville native Muhammad Ali and was also the site of a “Top Chef” challenge judged by the boxer’s daughter, Laila Ali.

“When you say ‘Muhammad Ali,’ there is immediate recognition,” said Branscum. “People not only knew him for his boxing career but also for his humanitarian efforts. The museum talks about Ali and what he did throughout the world.”

An orientation theater relates highlights of the boxer’s fascinating life before visitors explore interactive exhibits on Ali and his connection to Louisville.

Signature Group Experience:  To see the museum without the crowds, groups can opt for the After-Hours Tours. Guides provide background information during the two-hour tours.

Signature Culinary Experience:  Whether groups would rather book a catered museum experience from Bristol Catering or dine in at the nearby Bristol Bar and Grill, groups can try a Louisville favorite in combination with a visit to the Muhammad Ali Center. Locals especially love the Bristol green chili wontons, served with a freshly made guacamole sauce.

Seelbach Hilton and Brown Hotel

One of the show’s elimination challenges took place in the historic Seelbach Hilton for a Gatsby-inspired-attire shindig. The 321-room hotel’s glamorous 1920s parties served as inspiration for parts of “The Great Gatsby.”

“When the show went to the Seelbach, people learned about the Prohibition era and the hotel’s connection to that time,” said Branscum. “People are surprised and intrigued to hear an interesting story about Kentucky that they didn’t even know about. People are now wanting to go to the Seelbach and have that experience.”

The Brown Hotel is also mentioned during the show as a recognized culinary establishment. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the hotel contains 293 rooms, a Georgian Revival interior and two restaurants.

Signature Group Experience: Guests can sip on an Old-Fashioned at the Old Seelbach Bar for a trip back to the 1920s. “Top Chef: Kentucky” featured the whiskey, sugar and orange cocktail, which fits well with the Old Seelbach Bar’s early 1900s aesthetic.

Signature Culinary Experience: “Top Chef” contestants competed in a Quickfire challenge to reimagine Louisville’s favorite sandwich: the Hot Brown. Groups love to sample the open-faced turkey sandwich at the Brown Hotel, as the hotel’s chef invented the popular dish in 1926. The hotel typically serves 800 Hot Browns a week.

Loretto

Maker’s Mark

The familiar red-wax-dipped bourbon bottles of Maker’s Mark appeared in the second episode of “Top Chef: Kentucky.” Contestants took a distillery tour before incorporating bourbon into a dish.

“The episode shows that bourbon is more than just the drink,” said Branscum. “A visit to the distillery is about bourbon tasting but also about the craftsmanship behind the drink.”

General tours illustrate the complicated bourbon-making process, reveal the history of Maker’s Mark and allow participants to dip their own bottle in a red wax seal.

Signature Group Experience: Maker’s Mark offers several specialty group tours, including the Behind the Bar tour, which teaches participants how to create well-known bourbon cocktails.

Signature Culinary Experience:  Besides the traditional bourbon tasting, groups can dine on Kentucky classics, such as a Benedictine sandwich, at Star Hill Provisions Standards. The farm-to-table restaurant features an award-winning chef, a seasonal menu and specialty bourbon cocktails.

Paducah

Freight House

Sara Bradley, owner and chef for Paducah’s Freight House, was the only “Top Chef” contestant from Kentucky. Freight House offers a Southern-inspired restaurant and bourbon bar that use many local ingredients.

“Sara Bradley serves as Kentucky’s representative and ambassador to Kentucky flavors on the show,” said Branscum. “Paducah is a UNESCO Creative City. While they are known for their fiber arts, as you can see from Sara’s restaurant and some of the other local restaurants and microdistilleries, it is truly a creative city in the culinary arts as well.”

Paducah’s art scene thrives with numerous art galleries and shops.

Signature Group Experience: Groups can learn the trade of quilt-making at Paducah’s National Quilt Museum. The Museum Experience provides a detailed guided tour of the quilt displays before challenging participants to create their own fiber art.

Signature Culinary Experience:  Many diners choose the Kentucky silver carp dish when visiting Bradley’s Freight House. The distinctive dish features mild white fish with stewed sweet tomatoes, lima beans, cornbread and croutons.

Jamestown

Lake Cumberland State Resort Park

Kentucky has more miles of shoreline than any other state, except Alaska. “Top Chef” contestants spend a day on a houseboat on one of the state’s most popular lakes: Lake Cumberland.

“When ‘Top Chef’ visited Lake Cumberland, they showed how you can have a true Kentucky experience and center that around food,” said Branscum. “The episode shows off Kentucky’s natural outdoor beauty.”

Visitors flock to Lake Cumberland State Resort Park for a convenient way to enjoy lake activities, such as water tubing, fishing, canoeing and boating. The park also offers shuffleboard, miniature golf and nine miles of hiking trails.

Signature Group Experience: Groups seeking to re-create the lake party featured on “Top Chef” can book houseboats at Houseboating.org. The site offers multiple boats, including two that sleep 18 people.

Signature Culinary Experience: The park’s Rowena Landing Restaurant delights visitors with its panoramic views of Lake Cumberland and traditional Kentucky cuisine. For local flavors, diners can select the catfish, which chefs roll in seasoned cornmeal breading and serve with hush puppies.

Lexington

Keeneland

The stone fences, blooming trees and manicured grounds of Keeneland paint an elegant portrait of horse culture in Kentucky. The boutique track, built in 1936,  invites guests to enjoy horse racing each April and October in a more intimate setting.

“One of the last places the show visits is Keeneland,” said Branscum. “I think that is a really good bookend for the show. The show starts and finishes in horse country. When you mention Kentucky, horses are one of the first things that comes to mind for most people.”

Signature Group Experience: Alongside a day of wagering, groups can tour the scenic racetrack. Guides lead guests through the landscaped track grounds as well as invite them into the Keeneland Library, one of the world’s largest repositories of information related to the thoroughbred.

Signature Culinary Experience: The mint julep is a drink commonly served at the Derby and throughout Kentucky. Guests can soothe themselves after betting losses with the bourbon, shaved ice and mint cocktail served at the racetrack.

Rupp Arena

Home of the University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball team, Rupp Arena featured prominently during a “Top Chef” episode. The 23,000-seat downtown complex hosts sporting events, concerts and other events. Wildcats coach John Calipari served as a guest judge during the “Top Chef” Rupp Arena episode.

“I think it was emblematic of the role that basketball plays in Kentucky’s heritage and life,” said Branscum. “We see more and more sports tourism picking up in Kentucky, so if you are a basketball lover, Rupp Arena is an important place on your bucket list.”

Signature Group Experience: Groups can attend one of the venue’s many entertainment events, with upcoming shows including the Harlem Globetrotters, Disney on Ice and MercyMe.

Signature Culinary Experience: For an example of Lexington’s noted culinary prowess, groups can try a piece of Honeywood’s bourbon butter cake. Honeywood is one of the largest and newest restaurants owned by Ouita Michel, a famed Bluegrass chef and guest judge on “Top Chef: Kentucky.”

www.betterinthebluegrass.com/tc

Eliza Myers

Eliza Myers has worked for The Group Travel Leader since 2007. She is the online editor and associate editor for Select Traveler.

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