It was a nice taste of home.

That was my first impression walking into last week's Derby Party, an event hosted by United Way of the Quad-Cities Area and billed as the single-largest fundraiser for the Women’s Leadership Council’s Born Learning initiative.

I’m a Kentucky native, so I know all about the big hats, betting, bourbon and hot browns that go along with the Kentucky Derby, the two-minute horse-racing event I look forward to each May.

And all of it, and more, was on display at this horse racing-themed dinner at Crow Valley Golf Club in Davenport.

Stephanie Izard, a Chicago-based chef who won Bravo’s cooking competition show “Top Chef” in 2008, prepared the menu for 200 guests. This marked the third year United Way brought in a celebrity chef for the annual fundraiser. Tickets cost $150 each.

It reminded me of where I grew up, but I also learned a thing or two about my new home. Read on to see what I mean. 

Bourbon 101

I didn’t know Blaum Bros. Distilling Co., which is based in Galena, Illinois, existed.

Matthew Blaum founded it with his brother in 2013. He was serving up samples of their three-year-old Knotter Bourbon and nine-year-old Oldfangled Knotter Bourbon.

I enjoyed hearing about their “long and slow hard work” process of making bourbon and told him I would be out for a tour before the year ended.

"It’s all very meticulous," he said. "It's tough on the pocket book, but we're serious about our whiskey. It's a long-term dream."

Nearby, Sean McQueen, Mississippi River Distilling Co.’s brand manager, was busy mixing mint juleps. He offered samples of Cody Road Bourbon, Cody Road Single Barrel and Cody Road Rye Whiskey.

“Bourbon is really having a moment these days, and this is another example of that,” McQueen said. “It's the Kentucky Derby in October in Iowa … how cool is that?”

Meeting the ‘Top Chef’

I don’t remember seeing Stephanie Izard on TV, but judging by the line to talk to her, a lot of people did.

“It just feels good to get out of Chicago and be somewhere new sharing my food,” Izard told me when it was my turn.

“Having a theme to play with is really fun,” Izard added. “You have some classic ideas, and then you try to make it your own.”

Izard created a Southern-themed menu, including “mint julep” tuna poke, creole crab salad, Kentucky hot brown sandwiches, barbecue goat biscuits, shrimp and sausage gumbo, griddled pimento cheese/ham sandwiches and sticky sweet potato cake with bourbon toffee.

"If you're afraid of goat legs, you can go for some of the other things you know better," she said. "But I'm seeing a lot of foodies are here in the Quad-Cities." 

Izard has been busy since winning “Top Chef.” She is now the executive chef at three Chicago restaurants including Girl & the Goat, Little Goat and Duck Duck Goat. 

"I get to do what I love everyday,” she said. “And I'm fortunate the thing I love is something that can bring people together and make people happy."

Derby theme

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Fran Maus, who co-owns Me & Billy in downtown Davenport, had been looking forward to the Derby Party since she bought her ticket four months ago. 

Maus already had an outfit in her closet from her trip to the Kentucky Derby three years ago. 

After she and some friends went to Louisville, Kentucky, for the races, they “got kind of derby obsessed,” Maus said.

She told me about another thing to add to my Quad-City bucket list: Me & Billy will host a Kentucky Derby party this year.

“I’m just happy we have things like this to go to in the Quad-Cities,” Maus, who won the "best dressed" contest, said. “It’s a huge draw to meet a famous chef and experience their food right where we live." 

Giving back

Beyond the theme, food and drinks, the party had a higher purpose: raising money for Women’s Leadership Council’s Born Learning initiative.

Scott Crane, president of United Way, said he was thankful for the turnout.

"It’s our single biggest night,” he said. “It’s a party, and it’s really a look at how generous this community can be."

And, as I told him, for this transplant, it feels good to be part of a community like that.

"The people in the Quad-Cities are very giving people," he said. "It’s great how we can come together around something like food and drinks and all give back.”

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Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).