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Flathead Valley barbecue on menu at famous Kentucky Derby horse race

by SUMMER ZALESKY Daily Inter Lake
| May 2, 2024 12:00 AM

Ten thousand pounds of smoked brisket are expected to be served at the Kentucky Derby this year and while Montana may be in the shadow of other states when it comes to barbecue, that may not be the case for long as Stephen Kina, owner of 406 BBQ, will be catering at the prestigious sporting event. 

“The Kentucky Derby wasn't even on our radar, so when we received that invitation, it was the invitation of a lifetime,” said Kina. 

The Kentucky Derby takes place on the first Saturday of May at the historic Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. The menu for the race was released months in advance, with parent company of the racetrack Churchill Downs Incorporated noting that guests will “enjoy bespoke food and beverages experiences that pay homage to and celebrate this global entertainment event.” 

While the Kentucky Derby, marking its 150th year, is deeply ingrained with tradition, history, and culture, Kina is ready to push the boundaries of what barbecue can look like and represent the state of Montana well. The Flathead Valley-based and family-owned business has been serving brisket and gator sandwiches since opening in 2021. 

“At the beginning of the year, I reached out to this master concessionaire company that finds food vendors to fit what their clients are looking for. I just introduced myself, not expecting anything to come from it. I thought maybe I'd do an event with them somewhere, but if not, it's OK. Then I got an email that I thought was a scam because it was asking me to cater for the Kentucky Derby,” Kina said. “It didn't seem real to me.”

The concessionaire company pitched Kina’s Asian and Hawaiian fusion barbecue, and the idea was well received. Kina immediately got to work on creating two elevated menus for the derby, one for the paddock, and one for the infield.

“The paddock is all-inclusive and for people who purchased higher-end tickets and the infield is like a big party, so they have completely different atmospheres,” Kina explained.

For the paddock, 406 BBQ will offer a pulled pork slider with guava barbecue sauce and gochujang coleslaw. The second menu item will be seasoned sesame oil umami rice with pickled onions and a brisket topped with miso glaze.

“I looked everywhere when I came up with the miso glaze and I haven't seen anybody do it. Usually, people put it on fish, but nobody has put it on brisket,” said Kina. “These flavors will be really new for people, especially the guava barbecue sauce.”

Despite the temptation to do Texas barbecue when first starting his business, Kina stayed true to his Hawaiian roots, giving him an authentic understanding of the flavors and textures of the culture’s cuisine. 

“I’m not trying to mimic something that I see. I’m making stuff that I've tasted and grew up with,” he said.

Kina has been smoking meat for the last few weeks with the goal of bringing 275 briskets to the derby. To execute the grand affair, Kina is flying in a team of over 20 experienced caterers and barbecuers from all over the country, one of whom was a contestant on Gordon Ramsey’s “Next Level Chef.” Kina will drive to Louisville with his family, an almost 4,000-mile round trip trek, to transport a refrigerated trailer. The smoker will be provided by Mad Scientist BBQ, a Kentucky barbecue enthusiast who has a YouTube channel with more than 600,000 subscribers. 

“There are so many moving parts and we want to make sure everything goes smoothly. The whole experience is helping me grow as someone in the culinary arts,” said Kina.

Above all, Kina said he is most excited about the endless possibilities that can come from this opportunity, and making his state proud. 

“For me, I’m just very grateful for everyone in the valley that helped us to get where we are now,” said Kina. “We wouldn't have this opportunity without them giving us a chance.”


Reporter Summer Zalesky can be reached at szalesky@dailyinterlake.com.