One of the best food names I have ever heard is Hot Brown. Two words, both seemingly adjectives. That's all. A Hot Brown is a regional specialty in Louisville. People in the know told me that I could not leave the city with experiencing a Hot Brown. And the best place to do that was the Brown Hotel.
The name is no coincidence. The Hot Brown was invented at the Brown Hotel, one of the few classic old hotels that survive in Louisville's downtown (others include the Seelbach and the Galt House). The hotel was designed by Preston J. Bradshaw and opened in 1923, at a cost of $4 million. The man behind is was James Graham Brown, a taciturn, stubborn local entrepreneur who hated organized labor and loved to see his name on things (Brown Theatre, Brown Garage). He served on the board of directors of Churchill Downs for 32 years. Later on, he helped found the Louisville Zoo. When he died in 1969, he was worth $100 million and was the wealthiest man in Kentucky. He had no heirs, and the money went to his foundation, which exists still.
For whatever bizarre reason, David Lloyd George, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was the first person to sign the guest register. Other guests over the years included Harry Truman, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Crawford, Gene Autry, Eva Marie Saint, Queen Elizabeth II, Muhammad Ali (a hometown man) and even Queen Marie of Romania. It survived the Depression by asking its employees to work without pay from time to time, and the first floor was filled with water during the great flood of 1937. As you can imagine, Kentucky Derby week was always the most popular time at the Brown.
Every great hotel in Louisville seems to have closed sometime during the 1960s and 1970s, and so did the Brown. It shuttered up in 1971. Weirdly, the building was sold to the Louisville Public Schools and became the headquarters for the city school system. When officials decided to revitalize the downtown in the 1980s, the "Broadway Group" was formed, which acquired The Brown from Jefferson County Public Schools and began its renovation in 1983. In 1993 the hotel was purchased by the Camberley Hotel Company and renovation was completed, and sold to 1859 Historic Hotels LTD in the fall of 2006.
That's a long road back to recovery.
Anyway—the Hot Brown. It was invented in 1926 by the hotel chef Fred K. Schmidt. It's an open-face sandwich, and, to me, it looks like something Schmidt concocted out of leftovers from the previously night's dinner. It is a heart-attack special that consists of turkey, ham and bacon smothered with Mornay sauce, cheese and tomato. But there is a lot of variance in the recipe, depending where you go. (Hot Browns are served at many places in Louisville. Locals tell me the best version can be found at the Lynn's Paradise Cafe.)
I had a busy day mapped out for me in Louisville and I knew the only time I would be able to escape to the Brown Hotel and enjoy a Hot Brown was at breakfast. This may not have been the best idea, because a Hot Brown is a heavy blow to the stomach and constitution, and not necessarily to be sustained in the early hours of the AM. I felt dizzy and weak-kneed for a couple hours afterward, as if I had eaten a quart of ice cream very quickly, or perhaps several omelettes in a row. Make no mistake: a Hot Brown will test your stamina. It is not a dish for the faint-hearted.
This is the recipe for the Hot Brown as printed on the Brown Hotel website (however, I swear there was ham in mine):
he Legendary Hot Brown Recipe
Ingredients (Makes Two Hot Browns):
2 oz. Whole Butter
2 oz. All Purpose Flour
1 Qt. Heavy Cream
1/2 Cup Pecorino Romano Cheese, Plus 1 Tablespoon for Garnish
Salt & Pepper to Taste
14 oz. Sliced Roasted Turkey Breast
2 Slices of Texas Toast (Crust Trimmed)
4 slices of Crispy Bacon
2 Roma Tomatoes, Sliced in Half
In a two-quart saucepan, melt butter and slowly whisk in flour until combined and forms a thick paste (roux). Continue to cook roux for two minutes over medium-low heat, stirring frequently. Whisk whipping cream into the roux and cook over medium heat until the cream begins to simmer, about 2-3 minutes. Remove sauce from heat and slowly whisk in Pecorino Romano cheese until the Mornay sauce is smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.
For each Hot Brown, place one slice of toast in an oven safe dish and cover with 7 ounces of turkey. Take the two halves of Roma tomato and set them alongside the base of turkey and toast. Next, pour one half of the Mornay sauce to completely cover the dish. Sprinkle with additional Pecorino Romano cheese. Place entire dish under a broiler until cheese begins to brown and bubble. Remove from broiler, cross two pieces of crispy bacon on top, sprinkle with paprika and parsley, and serve immediately.