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The Hot Brown: Louisville's Legendary Open-Faced Sandwich

The Hot Brown: Louisville's Legendary Open-Faced Sandwich

The Hot Brown: Louisville's Legendary Open-Faced Sandwich

The Hot Brown: Louisville's Legendary Open-Faced Sandwich


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The Hot Brown Sandwich is a delicious staple of culture and heritage in Louisville, Kentucky. Originally created at its namesake the Brown Hotel, the Hot Brown began as turkey on bread covered in Mornay sauce and topped with tomato wedges and two slices of bacon, and has developed into an entire industry of fries, pizza, salads, and more. Chef Albert W. A. Schmid offers a wealth of recipes for the notorious sandwich and reveals the legends and stories that surround the dish. For example, it may have had humble beginnings as a tasty way to use up kitchen scraps, or it could have been invented to ward off hangovers—scandalous since the first Hot Browns were served during the Prohibition. Schmid treats readers to an exceptional collection of recipes for the legendary sandwich and hotel cuisine scrumptious enough to whet any appetite, including the Cold Brown (served during the summer), Chicken Chow Mein (the Brown Hotel Way), and Louisville-inspired cocktails such as the Muhammad Ali Smash.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781684350056
Publisher: Red Lightning Books
Publication date: 04/05/2018
Pages: 112
Sales rank: 1,098,055
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Albert W. A. Schmid is the award-winning author of many books, including The Kentucky Bourbon Cookbook, The Manhattan Cocktail, The Old Fashioned, and The Beverage Manager's Guide to Wines, Beers, and Spirits.

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The Hot Brown Sandwich

THE HOT BROWN SANDWICH is an inspired culinary creation that helped to put Kentucky cuisine on the map as one of the many great cuisines in the United States. The Hot Brown sandwich, known to locals as a "Hot Brown" was created as a late fall to winter sandwich. "I never cease to be amazed that people will drive hundreds of miles (to the Brown Hotel) for a Hot Brown," said Brad Walker, the general manager and vice president of the Brown Hotel for the past fifteen years and graduate from Cornell's hotel and restaurant management program. Later in the interview, Walker referred to the culinary creation as "our lovely little sandwich." The Hot Brown attracts people from outside the hotel. Walker said it is not uncommon for "six, eight, ten people to show up at J. Graham's Café and all of them order a Hot Brown." They come from all over the United States and even overseas says Walker, who knows this fact because people post their experience on social media. "Hotels (in the Louisville area) will direct people to the Brown for a Hot Brown," said Walker, who added that other hotels directing people away from their hotel to benefit another hotel is a unique situation that does not always happen. "The Welcome Center also sends a lot our way."

The Hot Brown is most likely a variation of the Welsh rarebit, although Kentucky author David Dominé observed in an interview, "I have always wondered if the Hot Brown was inspired by the Croque-Monsieur, just deconstructed." This theory stands up to scrutiny as the croque monsieur first appeared on a Paris café menu in 1910. Some soldiers from the United States would have seen this sandwich before returning home at the end of the Great War (World War I). Also, the croque monsieur is mentioned in Marcel Proust's 1919 novel, À la recherche du temps perdu: À lombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (In Search of Lost Time: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower), the second in his seven-novel masterwork. Of course, perhaps the Welsh rarebit, a sandwich dating back to sometime in the early sixteenth century, spawned the croque monsieur, which spawned the Hot Brown. Or, perhaps a direct line can be drawn from the Welsh rarebit to the Hot Brown. No one really knows for sure. In any case, the Hot Brown was invented at the Brown Hotel in 1926 by Chef Fred K. Schmidt during the height of Prohibition.

Since its creation, the Hot Brown has gained worldwide fame and has been featured in newspaper articles and on television shows, and the recipe is found in many Kentucky cuisine cookbooks not to mention many other cookbooks. In fact, a Kentucky cookbook without a Hot Brown is incomplete.

An incredible public relations effort and notoriety surround this open-faced sandwich, that was most likely made from nothing more than kitchen scraps — as something warm to eat on a frigid winter night during a break from dancing on the roof top at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, as an alternative to ham and eggs. Although another story has the Hot Brown being created to ward off a patron's hangover — which seems unlikely since the sandwich was created in the middle of Prohibition. Of course, Prohibition stopped very few people from imbibing in the United States, much less in Kentucky, the home of many bourbon distilleries. The Brown Hotel and the Hot Brown survived the Great Depression too. The sandwich gained so much notoriety that by the 1940s, many customers entered the Brown Hotel restaurant with their mind made up about what they were going to order, and many never looked at the other offerings on the menu. "This happens even today, especially on the weekends," said Marc Salmon, director of human resources at the Brown Hotel.

Even though the Hot Brown is now served year round, there is evidence that this sandwich was originally created for the frosty winter months and that another creation, the Cold Brown, was created for the sweltering summer months. If the original intent of Chef Schmidt was to create a hot signature sandwich, the timing for access to turkey could not have been better planned, as turkey is the favored bird for the United States' Thanksgiving holiday. Many people use leftovers to make Hot Browns during the weekend after Thanksgiving. When Chef Schmidt created the sandwich as a "special" to use up leftovers (the chef was being efficient with what was on hand in the kitchen — something a good chef is trained to do to reduce the food cost in the kitchen), he stumbled on an instant classic. The Hot Brown has become one of the comfort food staples of Kentucky cuisine available at Louisville restaurants, even when the Brown Hotel was closed from February 1971 to 1985. However, what started as a hot open-faced sandwich smothered in sauce has become, often, a concept rather than a classic dish because the original recipe for the Hot Brown is lost to history, and because of the number of Hot Brown dishes that look very different from the original. In fact, "the original Hot Brown was quite different from today's version," reads the narrative before the Hot Brown recipe in Kentucky Hospitality: A 200-year Tradition. Sometime after 1985, with some careful research, the Brown Hotel restored the recipe to a close approximation of the original. Few culinary dishes have lasted as long or have enjoyed as much popularity. Today when someone orders a Hot Brown they can expect turkey on top of bread, covered in Mornay sauce, and topped with wedges of tomato and two slices of bacon. The sandwich is so important to the identity of the Brown that "every employee needs to be able to describe the Hot Brown," says Mark Salmon, "so we serve the sandwich and discuss it in new employee orientation." Many restaurants offer their own twist to this classic sandwich, sometimes substituting one of the elements of the sandwich for something else or by adding something new. Each element of this sandwich is important and together they are an outstanding feast!

The following are the main elements of the Hot Brown. These ingredients together make the perfect sandwich and a filling meal. Chef Bobby Flay once said, "The only thing bad about a Hot Brown is that you need a nap right after you eat it."

Turkey or Chicken (Meat or Protein)

Sliced or broken pieces of turkey breast meat (or sometimes chicken breast) is most commonly used in Hot Brown recipes. Hot Browns are a wonderful use for leftover turkey. In fact, many Kentucky families enjoy Hot Browns the day after Thanksgiving while watching football. The amount of turkey varies from recipe to recipe, but this protein plays the leading role so an average of three to four ounces should be used to make one sandwich. The turkey should be broken up by hand and minimally sliced to make sure that the turkey stays in as natural a shape as possible. Processed turkey slices are discouraged in most recipes and make a very different final dish. Some riffs on the Hot Brown sandwich use other protein choices, which then leads to a name change. For example, the Pattie Brown that uses beef, and the Not Brown that includes seafood.


Bacon plays a supporting role in the Hot Brown and serves as a garnish for the sandwich. If the Hot Brown was a feature film, bacon would win an "Oscar" — or perhaps a "Julia" since we are discussing food — for its performance in completing the Hot Brown. In the United States, most bacon comes from the belly of a pig and is usually heavily marbled with fat and smoked with a hardwood such as apple, hickory, or mesquite, although some bacon makers in North America use corn cobs to smoke their bacon. Other countries have leaner cuts of bacon that come from the back of the pig. The amount of bacon served on a Hot Brown is one of the elements that almost everyone agrees upon: each Hot Brown should receive at least two slices of bacon, but feel free to add as much bacon as your arteries can handle.

Tomato (or Fruit)

The tomato is a latecomer to the Hot Brown recipe, which may explain the variations on this ingredient that are sometimes used. If asked, most people would identify the tomato as a vegetable, but the tomato is a fruit. So, it is no surprise that some recipes substitute another fruit, such as the peach, for the tomato. Mark Salmon from the Brown Hotel says, "Peaches are not acceptable on a Hot Brown." Mushrooms, shallots, pimientos, and even peas can also be used in different versions of the sandwich as garnishes, like the croque monsieur, which when garnished with a tomato becomes a croque Provençal. For the Hot Brown, the fruit can be sliced or wedged. Some recipes call for cherry tomatoes while others call for heirloom tomatoes. The creative chef and home cook alike can vary this element of the Hot Brown for unique results in the final dish. Chef Joe Castro, former executive chef at the Brown Hotel, said that the addition of the tomato (or fruit) is important because the acid balances out the dish. If you plan to substitute another fruit or vegetable for the tomato, make sure that your fruit has enough acid to balance out the dish. The Brown Hotel utilizes the Roma tomato to produce Hot Browns.

Toast (Bread)

The bread for the Hot Brown is usually soft, thickly cut white bread like Texas toast that has been toasted lightly, but the bread can be varied with superior results. The Brown Hotel trims the crust from the bread, but there are many restaurants that leave the crust on the bread. Chef Bobby Flay used savory French toast for his Hot Brown, which shows how one might be creative in making the sandwich. Almost any bread can be used to vary the Hot Brown. A simple substitution might include wheat bread, English muffin, flatbread, egg bread, or biscuits. A more complex substitution might use the bread to enrobe the sandwich so that you can carry it as you travel from one place to another.

Mornay Sauce

Mornay sauce is now the accepted sauce to top a Hot Brown, however, it may not have been the original choice of sauce. According to J. B. Hart, one of Chef Schmidt's line cooks, the Mornay sauce was laced with hollandaise sauce. Hollandaise sauce is an emulsified combination of egg yolks, clarified butter, lemon juice, and spices. The original sauce was not featured on the sandwich for long because a few intoxicated customers became sick after eating a Hot Brown. The health department investigated and did not approve of the method of separating eggs with bare hands, according to Hart. So, Chef Schmidt, James G. Brown, and general manager Harold Harter agreed to remove the hollandaise sauce from the mixture. It is very unlikely that they removed hollandaise sauce completely from the menu because at the time, hollandaise sauce was a staple on many menus in hotels and restaurants. But for the Hot Brown, Chef Schmidt returned to the drawing board, fortifying the Mornay sauce with heavy cream and egg yolk.

Mornay sauce is a classic derivative, or small sauce, of the mother sauce in French classic cuisine, Béchamel (white sauce). The white sauce is basically a fancy milk gravy named Béchamel for King Louis XIV's chief steward, Louis de Béchameil. This mother sauce is considered the easiest to prepare. Originally, the Mornay sauce would have been based upon the velouté sauce as the Béchamel sauce had yet to be created. Per Master Chef Auguste Escoffier, Béchamel is made with white roux, boiling milk, minced onion, lean veal and salt, pepper, nutmeg, and thyme. According to Escoffier the sauce is transformed from Béchamel to Mornay with the fortification of a fumet made from the meat in the dish, in this case turkey, and the addition of Gruyère and Parmesan cheeses and finished with butter. However, too much cheese will make the sauce stringy. Some versions of the Mornay sauce include other cheeses, such as cheddar, cream cheese, American cheese, and Swiss cheese. "Part of the secret is in the sauce," says Walker, "None tastes like ours does." The Brown Hotel uses cream and pecorino cheeses to make their Mornay, making the sauce rich and unique. "We have one person in charge of making the sauce so that the sauce is consistent," says Walker, who added that the Brown Hotel can't delegate the sauce making to many other people because "We don't want a lot of people with their hands in the pot." Mornay sauce may have been named after Philippe, Duc de Mornay, however, the origin of the name is still debated. Chef John Castro, my former colleague at Sullivan University's National Center for Hospitality Studies and former executive chef at Winston's Restaurant, once referred to Mornay sauce as "cheese gravy," which sums up the classic sauce. However, the staff at the Brown Hotel are forbidden to refer to the sauce in such casual terms.

This recipe for Mornay Sauce is a good starter for the home chef who is new to making the Hot Brown. This recipe is an adaptation on the Béchamel recipe from the James Beard award–winning author of James Peterson's Cooking. I have adjusted the recipe and added cheese to move the sauce from Béchamel to Mornay.

Mornay Sauce

Makes 1 pint or 4 ½-cup servings
In a small saucepan, bring the milk to a boil, then remove from the burner. Add the onions, carrots, celery, lean ham, bay leaf, and peppercorns. Cover and allow to sit for 15 minutes. Then strain the milk into a container and refrigerate.

Melt the butter in a different saucepan. Once the butter is melted, add the flour and mix the two together until a paste forms. Cook this roux for a very brief period — until it begins to boil — then pour in the cooled, infused milk.

Stir the sauce over medium heat until a gravy forms, and allow the gravy to bubble. Season the sauce with the salt, white pepper, cayenne pepper, and nutmeg. Then add the ½ to ¾ cup of cheese and allow the cheese to melt into the sauce. Once the cheese is melted, the sauce is ready to serve or use on a Hot Brown.

Or, if you want a very simple, creamy cheese sauce, you might try this one that I adapted from Richard Hougen's cream sauce which appears in his first book, Look No Further. Hougen was a professor of hotel management at Berea College, the manager of the Boone Tavern Hotel, and author of three books. His cream sauce recipe was very important to his cooking, and the recipe is featured in each of his books, Look No Further, Cooking with Hougen, and More Hougen Favorites. This sauce is a thick sauce and thus perfect for the Hot Brown sandwich.

Cheese Sauce

4 tablespoons flour
Melt the butter and add the flour. Stir while cooking for about three minutes. Make sure the roux does not brown. Add milk and continue stirring while cooking until the sauce begins to thicken. Season to taste. Hougen states that this is a thick cream sauce and advises adding an additional ½ cup of milk to make the sauce "medium thick" or an additional 1 cup of milk to make a thin sauce.


People, Places, and Things (and the Legendary Hot Brown)

James Graham Brown

People from outside the Kentucky area might know the name James Graham Brown because of the James Graham Brown Cancer Center or the James Graham Brown Foundation. A Hoosier by birth and a graduate of Hanover College, a small private Presbyterian four-year college in southeast Indiana (the oldest private college in the state), one might think that lifelong bachelor James Graham Brown might leave his wealth to benefit people north of the Ohio River, but when he moved to Louisville in 1903, there was no looking back. He co-owned a lumber company with his father and brother and started to develop downtown Louisville. The name on some of the buildings in downtown Louisville, including the Brown Hotel, the Brown Theater, the Brown garage, and the Martin Brown building, to name a few, suggest who is responsible for constructing them. He also helped to establish the Louisville Zoo, supported the Boy Scouts of America, and provided many donations and grants to schools, universities, and hospitals. Brown lived in the hotel. When he passed away, his wealth, over a hundred million dollars, was set aside in a trust and continues to help the people of Louisville. When he passed, he was the wealthiest man in Kentucky. Brown is buried in Cave Hill Cemetery.


Excerpted from "The Hot Brown"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Albert W.A. Schmid.
Excerpted by permission of Red Lightning Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Steve Coomes
1. The Hot Brown
2. People, Places, & Things
3. Recipes
4. Kentucky Hotel Cuisine

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