David Burtka—actor, Broadway star, entertainer, and celebrity chef—knows how to throw a party. Earlier this month, Burtka released his first cookbook, , filled with decadent recipes, gorgeous photos, and of course, how to make any occasion worth celebrating. So it comes as no surprise that this host-with-the-most goes all-in with his annual Kentucky Derby bash. "The Kentucky Derby is one of my favorite events to celebrate,” Burtka tells ED. “You don’t need to stress over a big to-do list, and you should always ask friends to help out with the planning. It’s the perfect way to spend time with the people you love." Above all, there are no rules to what makes a party perfect, just guidelines for how to get there. "When it comes down to it, a good party is about making these moments special for your guests."
From getting the invites right to ending the night on a memorable note, here’s Burtka’s guide to your best Kentucky Derby party ever—from start to finish.
"From the minute the invite is sent, you want guests to feel the party experience," Burtka says. Whether you’re sending an Evite or mailing an invitation, one fun idea is to include betting cards in the invite. "Yes, the day of mailed invitations may be behind us, but digital invitations are a great way to send invites. Plus, it’s much more eco-friendly," Burtka says.
Kentucky Derby Printable Party Invitation, $14
Fried chicken and cornbread aside, much of Southern cooking is more "sit down" appropriate. For Burtka, this is the perfect excuse to get creative with appetizers and hors d’oeuvres. "There are so many ways to make southern food party-appropriate," he says. "Deep fried chicken tenders, battered chicken wings, cornbread cakes with bacon jam, barbecue pork sliders, and Kentucky hot browns are some of my favorites." The key, according to Burtka, is to make everything mini—including desserts—like his signature derby pie bars.
Hot Pepper Bacon Jam, $13
When it comes to signature Derby day drinks, nothing is quite as classic as a refreshing mint julep (it has been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby since the 80s). While Burtka does play bartender at times, he says that another fun idea is to set up a mint julep station, so that guests can make their own drinks. "Lay out all of the ingredients—Bourbon, ice, sugar, water, mint—and allow your guests to customize their own cocktail," Burtka says. "Another fun (and boozy) idea is to host a Bourbon tasting, and even do blind taste tests to see if your friends can distinguish the high-end from the less expensive options." Burtka’s favorite Bourbon? Woodford Reserve.
Wooford Reserve Bourbon, $34
"When it comes to decor, all you really need is a table and some accessories," Burtka says. "Scatter rose pedals everywhere, make a banner covered in horse ribbons, even cut out paper horseshoes, and print out giant Derby signage. It doesn’t have to be extravagant, and the more personalized, the better." Burtka also likes to cover a table in classic Derby hats and fascinators, which guests can wear and take photos in at their leisure. If you’re looking for a less literal take on Derby decor, Burtka suggests sourcing inspiration from the patterns of the jockey uniforms, pendant flags, and signature Derby colors.
Confetti Horses, $6
In addition to the obvious betting, there are plenty of other games to make your party fun for all. "We play tons of fun games at our Kentucky Derby party, though there’s one game that Neil (Burtka’s partner) came up with and everyone loves. We call it ‘Drag Queen or Derby Horse?’ You write up a list of drag queen names and Derby horse names, and have people guess which is which. You’d be surprised by how hard it is," Burtka says.
Kentucky Derby Printable Betting Cards, $5
According to Burtka, "Party favors are NOT just for children." By giving guests a piece of the party to take home, you show your appreciation, while making the day that much more memorable. "Mini horseshoes, chocolate-covered bourbon balls, spiced pecans, little bottles of bourbon…the ideas are endless and there are so many great ways to get creative," he says. Above all, the most important thing is that you’re surrounded by the people you love, while making those around you feel special. "Food, fun, and family. That’s what really matters."
Woodford Reserve Bourbon Balls, $19