Everyday during racing season, tens of thousands of people flock to Oaklawn Racing and Gaming in Hot Springs, and of course they’re coming to watch the horses and gamble. But while they enjoy the sights and sounds of the days festivities, folks get to enjoy some great food also. Ever wondered where all that food comes from, or who is in charge of that end of the operation? The answer to that question is Executive Chef Alex Hampo.
Unlike most executive chefs who have to deal with a single kitchen, Hampo’s domain is a facility that houses more than ten restaurants and eateries. It is a massive operation, and Chef Hampo was willing to take me on a tour as well as answer a few questions. As we traveled by elevator, staircase and more hallways than I could count, I realized the enormity of the job he has everyday.
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When someone starts cooking at an early age, they love food and love to talk about food. Alex Hampo is no exception. He is definitely a wealth of food knowledge. Chef Hampo first learned to cook when he was just a boy by studying his grandmother who owned a restaurant in Chicago, and he still remembers one of first things he learned to cook: Beef goulash. It was Hampo’s grandmother who gave him what he still considers to be his greatest advice: “Cook with your heart, and cook the food how you would love to eat it.” This philosophy, along with Hampo’s own mantra “simple is better” inform the decisions he makes in the various kitchens he oversees every day.
Hampo’s first official job in the restaurant business came at the age of 14, working in an Italian restaurant. Busing dishes turned into helping out in the kitchen and cooking. The hard work left him with a love of the business and a love for food and ingredients that still runs deep inside him.
Asked about his style of cooking, Hampo says that he started out cooking French but is now more French-American. “French cooking has been incorporated into all styles of cooking,” he says of the shift. He names Beef Wellington as a favorite dish to make and eat as well as ingredients like saffron and Morel mushrooms. When I asked the question, Chef Hampo immediately started to go into detail about the ingredients and making sauces. I love to hear about and learn about food, so I could sit and listen to Alex Hampo all day.
So what is a typical day like for Executive Chef Alex Hampo? It starts in the early morning hours making sauces and getting ready to supply food to the many kitchens and eateries at Oaklawn. Gallons and gallons of soups, sauces and chili are all prepped, cooked, and checked for flavor time and again. But perhaps the most impressive thing is the amount of Oaklawn’s famous corned beef that is cooked in the massive kettles in the main kitchen – more than 10,000 pounds of corned beef is prepped, trimmed and cooked on Opening Day alone. The main kitchen is huge, and is a maze of culinary equipment. Chef Hampo navigates his way from kitchen to kitchen to make sure that the patrons are served the most flavorful and memorable food possible. Overseeing an operation this size, with multiple kitchens, restaurants and buffets, takes someone with a lot of patience and also a love for their craft.
Any conversation with Chef Alex Hampo can easily turn into a Q&A session about ingredients and recipes. As a food lover, that is a welcome conversation for me. There’s so much a young food lover can learn and absorb from a seasoned chef. I asked if there was any advice he could give to young chefs, the answer was simple. “Cook with passion and heart. Be true to yourself and the food”. I believe that if this simple advice is followed, a person can’t go wrong.