Sunday, October 12, 2014

Restaurateur Ouita Michel made it to Midway on her pluck, luck, skill and vision for local food

By Brian Bouhl
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

It’s hard to imagine where Ouita Michel would be today if she hadn’t told a lie about herself.

The nationally prominent matriarch of Bluegrass cuisine, Michel almost lost one of her first cooking jobs in New York City because she let her ambition overcome her honesty.

“I worked for a really nice seafood restaurant called John Clancy’s and I told the chef I knew how to filet a fish and I had never really filleted a fish in my life,” Michel recalled. “I basically just cried the first day, and to this day I have no idea why she didn’t fire my ass.”

Decades later, Michel sits in the bar area of the Holly Hill Inn, crown jewel of her mini-empire of food in the central Bluegrass region. The charming Greek Revival home, built about 1845, oozes Southern charm, from the shelves of bourbon on the wall, to the immaculate foyer and the kitchen that could very well be Mom’s or Grandma’s.

Michel moved to New York after graduating from the University of Kentucky, but returned to Lexington in 1993 once she married her husband Chris Michel (pronounced "Michael"), whom she met at the Culinary Institute of America on the first day of school. “I originally just came back to Lexington to get married,” she said. “I moved down here to plan the wedding with my mom and I got home and I just didn’t want to go back to New York.”

After jumping around jobs in Lexington in the mid-1990s, Michel opened up her first restaurant with Joe and Elizabeth Coons: Emmett’s, on Tates Creek Road. Michel credits the restaurant, “a fantastic experience,” for teaching her about Southern cooking and traditional Bluegrass dishes. But the 350-seat, fine-dining restaurant had its downsides, especially the stressful 80-hour workweeks, and Michel always wanted something smaller.

Little to her knowledge, fate was on her side, and one conversation with just the right person led to the acquisition of the centerpiece of her culinary family.

Michel was giving a tour of Emmett’s to Midway food writer Bob Rouse one night and the two were wrapping up their interview. She recalls it this way:

“You must love this place, you’ll never leave it,” said Rouse.

“Well, I do love it,” said Michel. “But I’d only ever leave it for the Holly Hill Inn in Midway.”

“Well, I own that with my dad,” said Rouse.

“If you ever want to sell it,” Michel replied, “call me.”

Unbeknown to her, Rouse and his family had started talking that week about how they needed to sell the Inn.  He eventually called, Michel and her husband came and looked at the property, and the rest was history.

Rouse confirmed Michel's account. "I consider that the greatest thing I've ever done for this community," he said. "They have been remarkable assets to the community."

Owning and operating the Inn since 2001, the Michels have called Midway home ever since, living in a cottage on the same property.

Though she wanted something smaller than Emmett’s 13 years ago, Michel now owns four other restaurants in Central Kentucky: Wallace Station Deli and Bakery on Old Frankfort Pike, Midway School Bakery at the south edge of town, and Windy Corner Market and Smithtown Seafood in Lexington. Adding to her tower of hats, she is also the chef-in-residence at Woodford Reserve Distillery, which has a new visitors’ center.

But Holly Hill is still home, and it’s where her mission started. “I think every business needs a mission beyond the bottom line, she said. “Our mission is to express the culture of Midway and of Central Kentucky through its food and to move it forward, not just continuously expressing the past but saying this is what we can do here.”

Michel is a leader of the farm-to-table movement that has taken off in Central Kentucky and many other parts of the nation. She is often asked to appear at culinary events around the state, and she is nationally recognized as a chef and leader in the local-food movement. And that helps make a civic and business leader in Midway and the Bluegrass.

That status wasn’t something planned, she said, but something she needed as a person.

“It’s nothing I set out to accomplish. I didn’t wake up one night and say I want to be a community leader. I want to be a community leader because I want my community to be great,” said Michel.  “I don’t want to just brainlessly make grits every day. I want to see the beauty in those grits because they come from Weisenberger Mill. I want to share that with the people who come to Midway.”

Being a leader to Michel also means supporting her employees, which number around 100.

“I want to change my community from the ground up. I want to support the people and encourage the people that are working for me in my businesses instead of always marching out front,” Michel said. “I want my young chefs to get more exposure. That is one reason I’ve tried to change my role. I’m not really the chef anymore at the Holly Hill Inn. I have all these fabulous people who I want to push forward.”

Despite her rise in stature since her move to Midway, Michel doesn’t see herself becoming a regional or national figure, because of guidance from her stepfather, the late Robert Sexton, longtime executive director of the statewide Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

“He was very influential in my life in terms of focusing me away from chasing this national Food Network-style fame,” said Michel. “It was more, ’Hey, I’m in Kentucky, I’m the Kentucky chef and I want to be the best. I want to change the way we think about food in Kentucky. I want to impact it, I want to develop it, I want to be a part of it. So Kentucky would always be my top priority because it’s my community.”

Pictures, awards and newspaper clips adorn the walls of the bar at Holly Hill. But outside of her five James Beard Foundation nominations for best chef in the Southeast, there seem to be three constant words: local, community, and leader.

“I moved back to Kentucky to feed a community,” Michel said. She’s done that and much more from her base on North  Winter Street. She’s changed the landscape of food in the Bluegrass for the present and future.

Luckily for Midway and Central Kentucky, that chef in Manhattan didn’t fire her all those years ago.

1 comment:

Rona Roberts said...

Thank you for this thoughtful, beautifully written profile of Ouita Michel. She epitomizes servant leadership. Her restaurants make eaters happy—and so much more. Her commitment to local ingredients and Kentucky cuisine mean real income for Kentucky farmers. She hires and supports people from the towns and neighborhoods where her restaurants are located. She is a treasure and a wonder. Thank you for the story.