Huge crowds will descend on Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby Saturday and they have to eat. To help make sure fans’ bellies stay full, hundreds of culinary students from around the country have come to Louisville. 

Tyikea Mclean, a graduate of SUNY Schenectady County Community College in upstate New York and now adjunct instructor, is back in Louisville for her second time at the Derby. 

While mixing up a squash medley in a massive bowl, she said it’s a far different experience from working in a restaurant. 

Tyikea McLean, a student at SUNY Schenectady, transfer a squash veggie medley from a massive mixing bowl into hundreds of trays in preparation for hungry horse racing fans.Stephanie Wolf | wfpl.org

Tyikea McLean, with SUNY Schenectady, transfer a squash veggie medley from a massive mixing bowl into hundreds of trays in preparation for hungry horse racing fans.

“Just the volume is, like, intense,” Mclean said. “It’s a different type of vibe, I would say. Because you’re just mass producing a bunch of food for a bunch of people.” 

She estimated she’ll pack about 200 trays today with the vegetables she’s been seasoning. 

Mclean said it felt great to be back for the first full-scale Derby since 2019, before the pandemic. 

“It’s such a great lesson in adaptation, just rolling with the punches,” said Courtney Withey, a certified executive chef and culinary instructor at SUNY Schenectady. 

Withey, and dozens of students from her school, took a 12-plus-hour bus ride down to Louisville earlier this week. Some of those students are cooking in makeshift kitchens, set up under large white tents in Churchill Downs’ parking lot. Others are working  in the dining areas, concessions and the infield. 

Withey said the hectic experience is a paid opportunity that helps students understand “that hospitality is just as much a mental game as it is a physical game.”

“It’s such a combination of being able to mentally and physically push yourself that it kind of gives them okay, this is as intense as it gets, and this is as exciting as it gets, and this is as grimy as it gets … They were kind of thrown to the wolves here.”

She added that it also gives students the chance to network and connect with culinary professionals throughout the week, like Sam Carlson

Carlson is the regional chef for Levy Restaurants, the Churchill Downs’ contracted hospitality partner. He works alongside the culinary students during Derby Week, helping them understand the kind of preparation that goes into an event of this scale.

According to Levy’s website, it takes about a year to plan how to feed Derby Day crowds at the track, and menus are finalized three months out.

Carlson said this year’s menu includes braised pork with a hominy base, fruit platters and sweets like bourbon balls. 

“I love it,” Carlson said of working Derby Week. “I’m glad to be back around people.” 

Courtney Withey, a certified executive chef and culinary instructor at SUNY Schenectady, works with her students at Churchill Downs on May 4, 2022. Withey says they bring their "the best and brightest" students because the logistics of the week can be a lot to wrangle.Stephanie Wolf | wfpl.org

Courtney Withey, a certified executive chef and culinary instructor at SUNY Schenectady, works with her students at Churchill Downs on May 4, 2022. Withey says they bring their “the best and brightest” students because the logistics of the week can be a lot to wrangle.

Culinary instructor Courtney Withey is also happy to be back cooking for tens of thousands of horse racing enthusiasts. 

“I will be doing Derbys until my body can’t take it anymore, which will be when I am old and gray,” she said. “Looking forward to like 30 or 40 more for sure.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with the correct title for Tyikea Mclean.

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.