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Thursday, April 1, 2021

Ouita Michel talks about her new cookbook, changes at Holly Hill and her restaurants surviving the pandemic

By Lauren McCally

University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

Chef Ouita Michel’s new cookbook, Just a Few Miles South, is coming out April 27 and will feature many of the recipes used at her restaurants. Michel talked with the Messenger about the book, the pandemic and changes at the Holly Hill Inn, the first restaurant she and her husband Chris opened.

The cookbook is co-written and edited by Sara Gibbs and Genie Graf, who work for the Ouita Michel Family of Restaurants, and is the top new release in professional cooking on Amazon. It was also mentioned in a Food & Wine magazine story, "23 Spring Cookbooks We’re Adding to Our Shelves."

“It took six years to write the book,” Michel said. “We wanted to make sure the recipes were right, so it took a while to write the table of contents and figure out what [was] going to be in the book,” and to reduce some recipes to household-size. It's being published by the University Press of Kentucky.

So, why did she want to write a book in the first place? “Once you get to a certain point in your career, I think you really want to document some of the things you’ve done,” said Michel, 56. She added that people have been asking for a book, and that as she gets older, she wants to write more.

The book’s intriguing title is a story in itself. “One of the first businesses that Chris and I worked in, after chefs’ school, was a little deli in East Hampton, Long Island, New York, and it was called Plain & Fancy Deli, and it was sort of the inspiration for Wallace Station,” their deli south of Midway.

Ouita Michel (Image from Zoom interview)
“I said that we often felt like Wallace Station was like the sister of Plain & Fancy Deli, just a few miles south. And so that was what gave rise to the title, ‘cause we’re not necessarily real Southern in Kentucky, but we are miles south of a lot of people, so it felt like it could communicate place without --- the press did not want the name Kentucky to be in the title, because they wanted to appeal to a broad audience, so we had to come up with something that communicated Kentucky, but wasn’t Kentucky.”

For Michel, the thing that makes Kentucky cuisine stand out is its deep agricultural tradition. She said that tradition has been refreshed by money from the lawsuit settlement that states made with cigarette manufacturers, because Kentucky put half of its share into agriculture as the federal tobacco program of quotas and price supports was ending.

“We were able to use a lot of that money to help farmers diversify their crops and grow a lot of varieties of things,” many of which find their way into Michel’s recipes. She is known nationally as a supporter of local food, and she said a farmer on her staff makes sure all the restaurants have local produce.

“What we need to do is celebrate all those things that are uniquely Kentucky, sorghum, blackberries, hickory nuts, all those things that pepper our food that make it really special.”

Asked for a favorite recipe, she thought a moment and picked one that might be surprising: “I’m a big pimento cheese fan, so the pimento cheese recipe might be my favorite.”

She added that she loves soup beans and cornbread, so those were also included, and “There will be a lot of people really happy to see our lemon bar recipe in there, because it’s been a secret recipe for so long.”

Ray Papka
Michel described some renovations at Holly Hill Inn, including an art gallery displaying the work of her father, Ray Papka, which will have a grand opening on June 5.

“My father was a scientist for years and retired early into art,” Michel said. The art is encaustic paintings, also known as hot wax painting, which uses found objects and heated beeswax with pigments added to it. “They’re really cool pieces,” she said, adding that it is “quite something to see” and “a kind of father-daughter project.”

Holly Hill is also building a new deck and launching a new menu concept that emphasizes the links between food and art. “We have a lot of new tricks up our sleeves, so it’s going to be exciting to see what Chef Tyler [McNabb] comes up with,” she said.

The reopening will come after a year in which Holly Hill was open only for takeout and outdoor dining and saw its revenues sink to 30 to 40 percent of normal due to the pandemic. Her other restaurants also suffered, and without two rounds of forgivable loans from pandemic relief funds, “We would have gone under.”

The big exception was Midway Bakery, which “did better in the pandemic than they did the year before, and a lot of that was from their mail-in order cookie project,” she said.

“Our business is already increasing quite a bit in the last couple of weeks, since we’ve gotten to Daylight Savings Time,” she said, “and the problem for us now is getting staffed and getting people back to work.”

Now, with the weather improving and more people being vaccinated, they are ready eat out, she said. “Everyone’s like ‘Oh, sunshine, let’s go, let’s go and have a burger out at Wallace and sit at the picnic tables.”

She told Business Lexington that one outcome of the pandemic was a monthly Zoom meeting of women business owners in the hospitality industry. She told the Messenger, “We all have the same kinds of concerns, we all raise families. I don’t feel particularly discriminated against, but . . . the pandemic made it pretty clear who bore the brunt of educating the kids, making the household work and all, that kind of thing.”Michel closed the interview by thanking her neighbors.

“I feel like our community has really, really supported us and we’re eternally grateful to them, for everybody in Midway who’s gotten out at Wallace and at the bakery and at Holly Hill. It’s been really tremendous and of course we had the Midway Bucks, so the City Council really came out and supported all the restaurants and local shops . . . I thought that was innovative and I’m just proud, I’m proud to live here. I love living here and I love our town, and really can’t imagine living anywhere else. So, hopefully, I’ll be a really old lady sitting on the front porch of Holly Hill Inn.”

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