The Hot Brown Sandwich originated in Kentucky, so it is sometimes called a Kentucky Hot Brown. It is a so-called ‘open-face’ sandwich, which means, strictly speaking, it is not a sandwich at all. The dish was developed by Chef Fred K. Schmidt of the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, now under new ownership. The Hotel, after opening in 1923, hosted nightly dinner dances, to which as many as 1200 guests would flock. The Chef needed a late-night dinner to satisfy the hungry guests other than the traditional ham and eggs, after the dance, so he invented the Hot Brown.
The dish consists of slices of white bread mounded with sliced turkey, bacon, and tomatoes, and covered in a cheese sauce (essentially a Sauce Mornay). Parmesan cheese is sprinkled on top and then the whole thing is quickly broiled. The dish was so successful that the hotel added it to its luncheon menu and soon where it soon was the most popular item served, by a country mile. It was called simply the Hot Brown, and the word sandwich was not used.
The Hot Brown became popular throughout Kentucky and soon spread to other states. Today, you will find the Hot Brown on the menu of many restaurants in the upper Southern states, as well as elsewhere in the United States. Most people who eat it are unaware of its Kentucky roots. There are, of course, different variations but the common the common elements are slices of turkey or chicken, crispy fried bacon or ham, sliced tomato, and a rich cheese sauce of cheddar, Swiss, or Parmesan.
Although under new ownership, you can still visit the Brown Hotel today, and get an original Hot Brown. Adam Richman, in an episode of Man v. Food Nation, visited the Brown Hotel and tried a Hot Brown the the English Grill restaurant, inside the hotel, one of three restaurants in the hotel. Richman describes it as an “open-faced” hot turkey sandwich served on Texas toast and topped with bacon and a savory Mornay sauce.” You can see the episode below.
The Brown Hotel, in addition to the original Hot Brown, offered a cold version of the sandwich, with rye bread, turkey or chicken, lettuce, tomato, hard-boiled eggs, and Thousand Island Dressing. The ‘Cold Brown’ was never as popular as the hot version. The Brown Hotel closed in 1971 and was sold to the Louisville Public Schools system, becoming the headquarters, with the Louisville schools system subsequently merging with Jefferson County schools. In the early 1980’s, the Brown was acquired by the Broadway Group, as part of an effort to revitalize the downtown area. The Brown was restored and re-opened as a Hilton Hotel.
Then, in 1993, it was purchased by the Camberley Hotel Company who lovingly returned the hotel to its historic glory, except making the rooms larger and leaving out a few of the original features. In 2006, Camberley sold the hotel to 1859 Historic Hotels LTD of Galveston, Texas. Although the hotel only boasts 293 of its original 600 rooms (they are larger), the 16 story hotel continues to be maintained and modernized and is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, as well as being a member of the Historic Hotels of America.