The Simpsonville landmark, the Old Stone Inn and Tavern, has been thoughtfully reimagined by Churchill Downs Executive chef David Danielson, to celebrate local flavors and local produce, in a culinary experience as magical as its storybook setting.
The question on the minds of anyone who meets David Danielson or who knows his story must be, “When does the man sleep?”
The Executive Chef at Churchill Downs recently purchased the fabled Old Stone Inn in Simpsonville but plans to remain at the helm of the track’s bustling kitchen. “We came in and embraced the magic and history of this incredible building that was the Old Stone Inn,” says Danielson. “We put a fresh spin on the food and experience with our vision and took the service to the next level. A place can be historic but needs to evolve to continue to be relevant. The menu needed to reflect how people are eating today and to have something for everyone. We want the restaurant to stand the test of time and move forward.”
He updated their offerings to spin classic southern fare with modern presentation and some lighter selections. On the menu are dishes such as grits fritters, potato hash, beef short ribs, roasted chicken and Appalachian stack cake. He also renamed the 200-year-old restaurant Old Stone Inn and Tavern and added a large, inviting bar in what formerly was one of the dining rooms. The bar menu offers sandwiches, salads and pastas.
“I love what we’re doing at Churchill Downs but after eight years there, I was having difficulty creating new dishes,” he explains. “A lot of times when you’re not in the kitchen cooking every single day, ideas don’t come to you as easily and freely. I needed a place where I could be cooking and doing something that was a bit more personal to me. I saw this amazing building and loved the history and the restaurant. I wanted to create some cultural things here and for it to be a place where people from Churchill Downs could work in the off season.”
A place can be historic but needs to evolve to continue to be relevant. The menu needed to reflect how people are eating today and to have something for everyone. We want the restaurant to stand the test of time and move forward.”
At the Old Stone Inn and Tavern, his general manager and chef oversee the operations while he is at Churchill Downs every day. In the evening, he goes to Simpsonville to experiment with new dishes, works with his team and talks to guests in the dining room.
“In Simpsonville, we’re surrounded by beautiful agriculture. I already had an amazing relationship with different farms based on my working with them at Churchill Downs. I’m building on those relationships and establishing new ones with other farmers to find new products,” he says. “We also look at smaller farms and the possibility of scaling them up to integrate them into our program at Churchill Downs.”
Danielson came to Kentucky following a career that was highlighted by his position as chef at the United Nations and Rockefeller Center in New York and at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago. “I had a track record of knowing how to go into a place that has a long and important history and be able to move them forward without really upsetting things too much,” he says. “Doing that lets me embrace all the great things associated with the Old Stone Inn and celebrate the fact that it was part of the community and of the memories so many people have had over the years.”
Being a chef and restaurateur are tough jobs. Why do you love them so much?
There’s something very rewarding about nurturing people and creating places for them to celebrate and eat and enjoy themselves. I treat Old Stone Inn and Tavern and Churchill Downs like my home. I want guests to have a welcoming experience.
What has been the greatest influence on your career?
Early in my career, I spent a year working in France. That was a game changer. I had learned how to cook in Chicago, but I learned how to live in France. It changed the way I thought about the way you should eat, how you should spend time sitting at the table talking to people and how you should shop for food.
what did you want to be when you grew up?
I waffled every year. Once I wanted to be a marine biologist. When I was in high school and bopping around, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I wound up where I was supposed to be.
You were a celebrity judge on Top Chef. That’s quite an honor.
It was a great experience. I had followed the show for years. I was very excited when I heard it was coming to Kentucky. It was fun for us to host at Churchill Downs and fun for me to be involved. It was a wonderful showcase for Louisville and the state. Plus, to show farms and the things happening in Louisville that people don’t know about beyond horse racing and bourbon.
Tell us about a “Gee, I wish I hadn’t done that moment.”
The list is long. The good news is none of them involved any missing limbs or being dead. I’ve made a lot of mistakes but I turned the majority of them into learning experiences.
You lived in New York and Chicago but seem to have adjusted very well to Louisville and to Kentucky.
One reason for that is the connection with the local farmers and the ones in Appalachia. They’re why I have fallen in love with the cuisine here. They inspired me to buy the Old Stone Inn and to apply the lessons I’ve learned from them to what I’m doing at Churchill Downs.
How do you get away from it all?
By reading a lot and spending time with my family.
What’s your greatest extravagance?
What’s next on your bucket list?
A very long vacation to a beach somewhere. Last year I did a cookbook, Bourbon Country Cookbook. I can definitely see a cookbook for Old Stone Inn and Tavern.
What’s your best advice for the home cook?
Start with the best ingredients. Whether you’re cooking something simple or trying a dish that’s a stretch for you, go to the farmers market. But, hey, at the end of the day the best advice is, it’s only food. You should have fun with it. Experiment and goof around. When I’m not in the restaurant or at Churchill Downs, I like to cook with my 14-year-old daughter who also loves to cook. We enjoy sitting down as a family and talking. Simple or elaborate, a meal is about breaking bread and enjoying yourself.
If you won the lottery tonight, what would you do tomorrow?
Buy a couple of nice watches. And I have some repairs I’d like to make at the Old Stone Inn and Tavern. What I wouldn’t do is change what I do every day. All the money in the world couldn’t make me happier than what I’m doing right now.
Dry Brine-Roasted Chicken (serves 4-6)
· 2 whole chickens, each cut into 8 pieces, (2 breasts, 2 wings, 2 thighs, 2 legs)
· 3 tablespoon kosher salt
· 2 teaspoon dry thyme leaves
· 1 ½ teaspoons garlic powder
· 1 ½ teaspoons onion powder
· 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
Trim the chicken pieces of excess fat. Pat dry with a paper towel. In a small bowl, combine salt, thyme, garlic, onion powder and paprika. Mix well. Transfer chicken to a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle salt mixture over chicken and toss until evenly coated. Arrange the chicken pieces on a baking pan so that all the pieces are skin-side up and the breasts are in the center of the pan. Don't crowd the pan; allow room between the pieces. Cover loosely with plastic wrap. Refrigerate 24 to 48 hours.
Pre-heat oven to 400°. Bake for 30 minutes. Lower heat to 350°. Bake an additional 10 to 30 minutes, until the juices run clear when poked with a sharp knife or the internal temperature of the chicken breasts is 165°. Remove from oven and let chicken rest 10 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter and serve immediately.
Grit Fritters with Country Ham (Makes 24 fritters)
· 2 cups water
· 2 cups milk
· 1 cup yellow grits (I prefer Louismill Smoked City Grits)
· 2 tablespoons butter
· 1 teaspoon kosher salt
· ½ teaspoon cracked black pepper
· 6 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese, grated (1 cup packed)
· ½ cup country ham, diced
· ¼ cup green onion, finely sliced
· 2 large whole eggs
· 1 tablespoon water
· 3 cups panko bread crumbs
· Canola oil
In a saucepan over medium-high heat, combine water and milk. Bring to a boil. Slowly whisk in grits. Reduce heat to medium-low. Stir occasionally until grits thicken and are smooth. Stir in butter, salt, pepper and cheese, whisking until cheese is melted. Remove from heat. Stir in country ham and onions. Transfer mixture to a 9 x 9-inch pan. Refrigerate until cool and firm (3 to 4 hours or overnight.) In a small bowl, combine eggs and water. Whisk thoroughly. In a separate bowl, place the bread crumbs.
Scoop chilled grits into your hand and roll into 2-inch balls. One by one, dip the balls in the egg mixture, then in the breadcrumbs to coat completely. In a Dutch oven, heat 3 to 4 inches of oil to 350°. Fry the fritters in batches for 3 to 4 minutes, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Serve warm.