It’s been 20 years since Ouita Michel opened her first restaurant. The Holly Hill Inn in the Woodford County community of Midway has won rave reviews for fine dining creations crafted from locally sourced meats and produce.
Now Michel operates six restaurants around the Lexington area, ranging from the upscale to the down home but all with a distinctly Kentucky flair. She’s also just released her first cookbook, Just a Few Miles South: Timeless Recipes from Our Favorite Places, that features some of the recipes that have become patron favorites at her establishments.
“It’s the story of all the hundreds of hands that have made these recipes over the past 15 years at these five or six restaurants,” Michel says. “It’s a story of a community and every good restaurant is its own community.”
Although she helped pioneer the farm-to-table philosophy in the Bluegrass, Michel didn’t start with the goal of changing the culinary scene of her home state. After graduating from the University of Kentucky, Michel went to New York, where she trained at the Culinary Institute of America. As she studied about French and Italian foods, she learned about their long traditions of relying on local agricultural products
Back in Kentucky, Michel found worked as chef for Dudley’s, a long-time Lexington fixture. But she hadn’t quite shaken the big-city attitude she picked up while in training.
“For a long time I didn’t consider myself a Kentucky chef,” she says. “I thought everything had to be evaluated against this New York standard.”
Making the Invisible Visible
But after a family illness, Michel says she realized she wanted to create her own community and be a chef who was of and by Kentucky. She knew the commonwealth had plenty of family farms growing incredible produce, not unlike the French and Italian food artisans she learned about in school. But what she lacked was a venue.
Then she and her husband found a 19th-century stone and brick building on a rise overlooking Midway.
“When I saw the Holly Hill Inn and its locale… I just felt like it could come to fruition here in central Kentucky,” says Michel. “We have tons of small farmers growing incredible produce all around us.”
Multiple James Beard Foundation Award nominations have followed for Michel, as well as glowing writeups in Southern Living, the New York Times, and other publications.
Her success with Holly Hill Inn allowed her to open the Wallace Station sandwich shop in rural Woodford County, Smithtown Seafood and Zim’s Cafe in Lexington, Windy Corner Market in northern Fayette County, and the Midway Bakery and Cafe. To supply her restaurants, Michel purchases as much locally sourced food as possible – about $3 million worth (and counting) of Kentucky-raised meats, fruits and vegetables, and dairy products. Instead of simply enjoying a meal at one of her tables, Michel wants diners to consider how that food got there.
“I’m always trying to make the invisible visible,” she says. “We want to get you to stop and think about all the people that participated in making this bread, making this pimento cheese, curing this country ham, putting it all together and presenting it to you.”
‘Food Is Love’
It also took a small community to produce Michel’s new cookbook. Genie Graf, who works for Michel, and Sara Gibbs, a fellow chef, helped compile and edit the book. Lexington tattoo artist Brenna Flannery, who is the fiancé of Holly Hill Inn Executive Chef Tyler McNabb, created the illustrations. And Kentucky author Silas House wrote the foreword.
“Just a Few Miles South is a tour of Kentucky and a praise song for place,” writes House. “It’s a meditation on the importance of food in our lives and the importance of being a good neighbor in ways big and small.”
The book guides readers through a taste-tempting collection of sandwiches and burgers, soups and salads, and desserts. The prose, like Michel’s work, is built around two basic philosophies: That food is love, and if you enjoy the process of making it, it will taste delicious.
“Sometimes we get lost in the expertise of cooking,” she says. “I say this to young chefs all the time in the kitchen, ‘You’re not the first person to have made cornbread, you’re not the first person making this food… so don’t worry so much.”
Among the 150 recipes in the book, Michel does have her favorites. There’s buttermilk cornbread, and cheese-based spreads like pimento cheese, bourbon white cheddar spread, and Benedictine. She’s also partial to the Cold Turkey Rachel (a variation on the classic Reuben sandwich) and lemon bars.
“I love lemon everything,” Michel says. “I put lemon almost on everything right before it goes out the [kitchen] door. I feel like it balances salt, it sparks flavor.”
Surviving the Pandemic
Like many small business owners, Michel struggled to keep her restaurants afloat in the face of COVID-19 closures and restrictions. Early in the pandemic, she says she decided to trust her instincts about what was right and follow the guidance issued by Gov. Andy Beshear and Kentucky Public Health Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack.
“In situations like this when you’re a small businessperson, you need certainty,” Michel says, “and the only thing that I felt that was certain was this science and medical data, and the daily press release of that information to us as citizens.”
Even as the pandemic has abated, the challenges continue. Just a few weeks ago, Michel’s Smithtown Seafood in Lexington closed for two days after a kitchen employee who doesn’t interact with customers tested positive for COVID. The restaurant announced the incident on its Facebook page, saying the temporary closure would allow time for all employees to get tested and the premises to be fully sanitized.
“We made commitment from day one that we’ll be open, we’re going to be as transparent with our guests and our employees as we possibly can be,” she says.
In the end, Michel she was able to keep her employees working throughout the pandemic.
“We brought all these little bad-boy restaurants through,” she says.
But Michel is concerned about the wider impacts of COVID on the food scene. She worries about the skilled food service workers who lost jobs and may never return. She also says the pandemic shuttered many smaller, independently owned restaurants in some communities leaving only the big chains open. The trick now, she says, is to nurture the mom-and-pops that did survive and figure out how to bring the ones that closed back to life.
As for her own future, Michel already has a second cookbook in the works that will focus on menus and recipes from Holly Hill Inn, which she hopes that will be out in two years. And she will continue to promote her philosophies around community and food.
“In modern-day professional cooking, we’ve made it into like a factory job… It’s a grind, it’s seven days a week, it’s the same thing all the time,” she continues. “We’re not doing that, and showing instead how being a chef can be part of being an artist and a craftsperson at the same time.”