The Many Faces of Ouita Michel
Her Varied Eateries Share a Nourishing Philosophy
The philosophy behind chain restaurants is simple: Create a menu and mood that succeeds in one place then replicate that exactly everywhere else. But bluegrass chef Ouita Michel is no chain philosopher.
Yes, the Central Kentucky restaurateur hit it big when she and her husband, Chris, opened the Holly Hill Inn in Midway in 2001. Plenty of customers, national attention and a James Beard Award nomination for Best Chef in the Southeast followed.
So it was natural that over the next dozen years Michel, who is also chef-in-residence at Woodford Reserve, would become the chef/co-owner of three more restaurants in the region, as well as a bakery.
That’s enough links to make a small dining chain — but not one of her signature spots seems at all like another.
Sitting over tea at a white-napped table at Holly Hill, discussing the very different chrome and porcelain, urban-industrial style of her latest place, Smithtown Seafood, which opened near downtown Lexington last September, Michel laughed when asked just what her philosophy is. “You have to do the restaurant that the place tells you to,” she said, then waved her hand toward the elegantly country dining room. “Holly Hill Inn can only be one kind of restaurant: Kentucky Continental with a farm house ethic.”
Asked to define a bit more she replied, “Do you remember M.F.K. Fisher’s farmhouse that she wandered into and had this simple but perfect meal? That’s what I always wanted here.”
At Wallace Station, just up the road in Versailles, however, she wanted to honor the feeling of the 100-year-old country store the building had housed. “Sandwiches suited that perfectly,” she noted, and Wallace Station became a deli.
Meanwhile, the mood at Windy Corner, at the intersection of a couple of small roads coursing past horse farms off the Paris Pike just east of Lexington, is, well, breezy. Big windows turn that former country store into a sunny dining room full of old kitchen tables where customers settle back to share stories. That conversational mood is no accident.
“You might think the name is because there’s a lot of wind that blows through on that open corner, but there was an actual guy named Windy who once owned the store,” Michel explained. “And he got his name because he sure loved to talk.”
The menus at each place are as different as their decor, as well. Brunch at Holly Hill might include an entrée of roasted Stone Cross Farm pork loin in a sea salt, citrus and herb crust with Ayres Family Orchard plum compote, Weisenberger Mill cheese grits and farm market vegetables. Meanwhile, breakfast over at Windy Corner may be built around the same grits, sans cheese, offered up simply with Stone Cross bacon, eggs over easy, red potato hash browns and a buttermilk biscuit.
And while the cold-cut-oriented sandwiches at Wallace Station offer cool variations on the club (spiked with housemade barbecue sauce) and Cubano (featuring Pops Habagardil pickles grilled in garlic annatto butter), over at Smithtown po’ boys rule and the contents that fill them or the alternative baskets are fish and seafood, grilled or batter-fried.
Is it difficult to juggle so many different personas? Michel grinned again.
“Actually, it’s interesting. And fun. And I have great management teams at all the restaurants. I’m blessed with incredible people I can’t pay all that well, but I can always promise them I am making less. And I give them as much autonomy as possible.”
One thing that all Michel enterprises do have in common is a dedication to local sourcing. Long before locavore was a buzzword Michel and her husband/partner were contracting with neighboring producers, such as the Weisenberger Mill, a few miles from Holly Hill, to stock the larder. She bought pansies and violets and local sorghum from her neighbor Lucy Breathitt until she stopped processing the syrup.
Now Michel buys that from Country Rock Sorghum in Versailles. In the dozen years since opening, the Michels report that their restaurants “have purchased more than $1 million of Kentucky-grown meats, dairy products, fruits and vegetables.”
The broadside menu for Windy Corner lists over 30 local producers whose items are used in the kitchen, many of them also sold from shelves in the store. The menu also lists web addresses for suppliers when available, as part of Michel’s philosophy is not simply to use local products but to create a buzz and market for them as well. At Smithtown Seafood, local gets even “localer." The eatery occupies about a quarter of the 90,000-square-foot building that was once a Rainbow Bread factory.
Customers order and pick up at a series of counters and while to-go customers are waiting, they can admire the whole fish and other aquatic items iced down in a glassfronted display case. Customers who want to “eat in” take a number and find a table at the West Sixth Brewing Co. adjacent and accessible through a wide door. There they can, if they like, select from local quaffs brewed right on the spot.
And while the fresh-caught catfish is from Florida’s St. Johns River and the head-on shrimp and other seafood offerings obviously “aren’t from around here,” the tilapia and the fresh salad greens and herbs at Smithtown are raised right under that same roof, at FoodChain, an indoor aquaponics nonprofit that shares the rest of the building. Michel serves on the FoodChain board of directors.
Michel noted that there are a few more important local elements to her latest venture: Smithtown began as a settlement for freed slaves after the Civil War and the neighborhood, while gentrifying, remains both racially and economically mixed.
“I want for Smithtown to provide jobs for people who live right in that neighborhood, so when we were opening, we just put a ‘Help Wanted’ sign in our window. We had over 100 applications,” she said.
“One thing that struck me right away was that our new hires were shocked that they received free staff meals.” Michels’ policy has always been to feed staff before a shift begins “because people are happier at their job when they aren’t hungry. I don’t understand why all restaurants don’t do that as a policy. Restaurants are so labor intensive and employ such large numbers of the working poor. Feeding staff should be a part of the culture.”
And Michel pointed out that feeding a crew drawn from folks who live in the neighborhood has another rationale: “From the beginning, it’s mattered to me that the people who live near the restaurant should be able to eat there. That’s been a hard balancing act, trying to bring sustainable seafood to the counter at a reasonable price the neighbors can afford. And I know our price point is a little higher than they might expect, so having staff eat there and then go home to talk about how good it was is a definite asset.”
And so far the word of mouth seems to be good. Michel recalls: “One day, just after opening, we noticed an older man from the neighborhood peering in the window. He walked past a couple of times, then came in and looked at the menu and kind of shook his head. But he ordered several items to go. The next day he was back. I was holding my breath as he came through the door. I didn’t know what he was going to say, and I wanted so much for it to be good. He came up to me and said, ‘Well. I thought your prices were kinda high, but I’m telling you, that’s some of the best food I ever ate.”
Ouita Michel enterprises:
Holly Hill Inn:
426 N. Winter St., Midway, KY
Midway School Bakery:
510 S. Winter St., Midway, KY 40347;
501 W. Sixth St., Lexington, KY
3854 Old Frankfort Pike, Versailles,
KY 40383; 859-846-5161
Windy Corner Market:
4595 Bryan Station Rd., Lexington,
KY 40516; 859-294-9338
West Sixth Brewery:
501 W. Sixth St, Suite 100, Lexington,
KY 40508; 859-951-6006
501 W. Sixth St., Lexington, KY
SMITHTOWN BEER SLAW
Ouita Michel Recipe
At Smithtown Seafood, the Beer Slaw Dog is made with a Marksbury Farm hot dog topped with Wallace Station Bourbon Mustard, West Sixth beer slaw, West Sixth Smithtown Brown beer cheese and pickled onions
- 5 pounds slaw mix (2 heads green cabbage and 1 carrot, shredded)
- ½ cup red onion, cut in thin strips
- 1 tablespoon celery seed
- 1 quart brown ale
- 1 quart malt vinegar
- ¼ cup kosher salt
- 6 tablespoons mustard seed
- 1 cup sugar
- Put slaw mix, red onion and celery seed in a large bowl or tub and mix well.
- Combine ale, vinegar, salt, mustard and sugar in a large pan. Bring to a simmer and pour over cabbage. Mix and cover with foil to allow slaw to steam for 1 hour. Mix again and taste for salt. Chill. Use as side dish or as a topping for hot dogs and/or barbecue.
HOLY HILL BUTTERNUT SQUASH SOUP
Ouita Michel Recipe
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 cups diced sweet onion (2 medium-size onions)
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 2 teaspoons peeled minced ginger
- 10 cups chicken stock
- 2 peeled, diced potatoes
- 1 cup peeled, diced pear or apple
- 8 cups butternut squash, roasted then measured
- 1 cup heavy cream
- ½ cup fresh orange juice or apple cider
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon hot sauce
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon white pepper
- Pinch nutmeg
- Pinch cayenne
- Pinch cinnamon
- Melt butter in a heavy, deep pot and add onion, garlic and ginger. Cook over medium heat until the vegetables are soft and onions are translucent, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add chicken stock, potatoes and fruit and simmer until potatoes and fruit are soft, about 20 minutes (depends on size of chunks). Stir in butternut squash and simmer briefl y.
- Purée and strain through a fi ne-mesh sieve. Add cream, fruit juices, hot sauce, salt, pepper and spices. Taste and correct seasoning to your taste.
- Serve garnished with sour cream, if desired.
Ronni Lundy is a former Courier-Journal restaurant critic and music critic who now lives and writes in Burnsville, NC.