With the recent announcement that “Top Chef” will film its next season in Kentucky, food lovers around the country are figuring out what Kentuckians have known for years — the Commonwealth’s food scene is thriving.
The state’s vibrant culinary landscape is due in part to quality local ingredients and a wealth of creative chefs and restaurateurs, none more important than University of Kentucky alumna Ouita Michel, a James Beard Foundation Award nominee multiple times as Outstanding Restaurateur and Best Chef Southeast. One of the original champions of Kentucky’s local food movement, Michel has built a regional restaurant empire that now includes such popular establishments as Honeywood, Holly Hill Inn, The Midway Bakery, Smithtown Seafood, Wallace Station, Windy Corner Market and Restaurant and Glenn’s Creek Café.
for her impact on the food scene in the Bluegrass State and beyond, attended UK, but few probably know she grew up literally across the road from campus on State Street. The daughter of a professor at UK’s medical school, she has several fun family memories of her time as a kid at the university, including time spent in the faculty and staff gardens on UK’s Ag farm (now Kroger Field).
A graduate of Lexington’s Henry Clay High School, Michel majored in political science at UK and was a member of the debate team and honors program (now Lewis Honors College). In 1986, she became only the second woman to win a national debate championship (the previous female to win took the title in the 1960s). Her debate coach, Roger Solt, still works with Michel today as her partner in the restaurant business.
“It was an incredible experience to win a national championship like that,” Michel said, likening her academic training on the UK team to athletics training Olympians take on.
“That is a transformative experience at that age because it’s a lot of work… You can see these young people who have dedicated so much to their sport. Debate is very much the same way only you’re dedicating all that time to research and argumentation.”
To this day, Michel treasures her academic experiences at UK. Her passion at the time was studying modern American political philosophy with Ernest Yanarella and Herb Reid. But she also holds dear her varied studies in the humanities — from honors classes with former Kentucky Poet Laureate Jane Vance, who died in 2014, and historian James Albisetti, who she notes is one of her restaurants’ best customers, to her studies as one of the members of the first class of Gaines Fellows.
“I mean, the experience of writing the (Gaines) thesis, the experience of going through a colloquium of classes where you learned language from a linguistics professor, city design from an architect, and visual literacy from Jane Peter — it was an amazing time.
“I didn’t have your classic education,” Michel said. “But every person I came into contact with during my education at UK changed me, impacted me, and I’m not just saying that.“
After earning her bachelor’s degree from UK, Michel moved to New York where she graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and met her husband, Chris. The two would return to Kentucky in 1993 for their wedding, where she fell in love with her home state all over again.
And Michel’s return couldn’t have been timed better. Lexington’s fascination with food was growing as it was dubbed the fast food capital of America. In Frankfort, the state struggled to help farmers through tobacco settlements, and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture began earmarking funding for farmers willing to diversify. And with her CIA studies under her belt, Michel understood what was making Italian and French cuisine in vogue — locally-sourced products.
Kentucky was ripe for a local food revolution.
“We’ve (Kentucky) diversified our agricultural base, we have livestock holdings, we’re deep into organics, into sustainable, into local production of all different kinds of crops,” Michel said. “And it’s my job, the Kentucky chef, I’m using what our farmers are producing so that I can showcase that this is what we’re about in terms of food in Kentucky. We’re about what we’re growing right here.”
And 25 years later, Michel is happy with the life she has built in her old Kentucky home.
“I love my job. I’d be a fool not to. I have always known that our food culture in Kentucky cannot be defined by restaurants. Restaurants can be part of it and we can help drive it forward, but our food culture is so much more than that. It’s our families, it’s our gardens, it’s our moms, it’s our dads, it’s part of our family culture.
“So, yes, I live a dream life. I live on 10 acres in beautiful Woodford County. I have a 160-year-old restaurant (Holly Hill Inn) right next door to me. I have a fantastic group of employees, young people I’m dedicated to promoting and moving forward in their culinary and hospitality skills.
"The young chefs in all my Central Kentucky restaurants are every day cooking from scratch with local products, and are super proud of what they’re doing and I’m really proud of them in turn. All of us together are serving our guests great food and spreading the word about our incredible Kentucky food culture."
And what’s next on her menu? You may see Michel back on campus in the future. “I am definitely going to be a Donovan Scholar when I am of age. I’m staying here just for that program. I plan on getting my PhD and studying all kinds of things!”