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Chef Ouita Michel talks Top Chef Kentucky and tells us why the state is a special food destination

Chef Ouita Michel, one of Kentucky’s most celebrated chefs, is a huge supporter of local farms in Kentucky at her flagship Holly Hill Inn, a fine dining restaurant opened in 2001. The devotion to local foods is evident also at her other restaurants: Wallace Station Deli just outside Midway; Smithtown Seafood (two locations), and Honeywood in Lexington; The Midway Bakery, Midway; and Woodford Reserve Distillery outside Versailles, Kentucky where Michel is chef-in-residence. 

Michel is a multi-year James Beard award nominee and an alumna of the James Beard Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, a collaborative for chefs who work to improve the world’s food systems.  I was so happy to be able to speak to Ouita about how her restaurants have pivoted to still serve food during this outbreak, how others can help local charities, Top Chef Kentucky and of course some discussion around special Kentucky bourbon recipes and cocktails.

How have you been transitioning your business into the current social distancing requirements?

Our restaurants were closed on March 12th.  All of our dining rooms had to shut down. We closed two restaurants completely. We had a wide geographical range between the restaurants. We felt we needed to narrow that in order to make sure everyone was safe in their operation. We got our online ordering system up fast which was an amazing thing. We had all of our websites with the online store capacity but had never actualized it before.

I don’t think the requirements were clear at first on what people were allowed to do.

That first week was a learning experience. We definitely had to lay a lot of people off and went down in our number as the working with social distance became clear that first week. Then we took a hard look at the number of people we could have in each kitchen, which is about three people. We have one kitchen that is big enough to have four people in there at one time. There are about four working stations inside the kitchens. We closed the restaurant to the public and that allowed us to spread out in all the dining rooms to create packing stations for the curbside pickup option just to keep people, one person works the registers, phone and iPad because some orders come in online. There is a person making the sandwiches and another person in the kitchen. Depending on the restaurant they are working in, they have a work zone, about a ten-foot area. We have masks for employees to wear if they would like to feel more secure. In that kitchen we have three people in the main kitchen and one person in the dish room for a maximum number of four. We are lucky there because we have lots of windows and stuff in our kitchen and it has been beautiful weather.

What restaurants do you have that are still open?

Holly Hill Inn is doing weekend curbside. Zim’s Downtown in the Courthouse has the biggest space so they are doing curbside. They have a special loading zone parking area so they are good for curbside. They are open downtown. Smithtown Seafood down at Wessex is open because they have these big windows that look down on the street, they can see when people pull up making curbside delivery really easily. Wallace Station is also open.

This affects a lot of restaurants and everyone in the restaurant industry. Are there any local Kentucky causes you are supporting right now?

FoodChain is the big nonprofit we support. I have been down there to do some cooking onsite. This week we are preparing meals for them. With the schools shut down, at first Fayette County was delivering food to school bus stops, but then one of the workers tested positive for COVID-19 so they stopped distributing food. Right now it is Spring Break so there is no food going out to kids so FoodChain is trying to fill that gap and ramping up meal production and distribution process they have been working on. We’re donating, this week we are at the point we can start making meals for them. We have a big catering kitchen at Tipton to help with that production. It helps to keep people segmented away. It adds a production kitchen to what they need, but keeps my workers from being exposed to other people.

Is there a way other people can help?

They do need donations and they are asking for donations. Becca (Self), the Founder, sent out a social media post yesterday. That is the best way people can help. People can volunteer, but they prefer to have chefs volunteer. You have to have your food handlers permit. She doesn’t need people who don’t know how to cook. She needs people she can say go make this casserole or whatever. They have tons of donated food. Leandra Forman is the Manager of the Kitchen and Director of Food Processing Program. They need people competent in the kitchen. If you are a chef and currently not working and want to do something, it would be a great place to donate your time. You can sign up for those shifts. There are three shifts, three hours a piece that you can sign up for online.

What do you think makes Kentucky such a special food destination?

We have a heritage of hospitality is one thing that makes us so great. Another thing is, in the United States, we are fourth in the number of small family farms that we have. We have a Department of Agriculture in Kentucky that invested heavily in those small farms in the tobacco settling process. We have the 25-year history of investing into small farm entrepreneurial projects. We have an extremely strong and thriving small farm population and entrepreneurial food population because of those kinds of investments by the State Ag Board. We also have this great brand called Kentucky Proud, which allows the consumer to see a marker of what is grown and produced locally and it has created a strong network of support for local businesses, especially local food businesses. I think that is one thing that makes it strong. We have a strong heritage of fantastic cooking. We gave rise to Colonel Sanders, Duncan Hines, to country hams. I think one of the things that goes unsung is that the Courier Journal played in codifying and documenting Kentucky’s recipes. We had some of the best food writers in the South come out of the Courier Journal back when it was producing those food booklets and newspapers were in their heyday. Cissy Gregg and Camille Glenn, who wrote The Heritage of Southern Cooking, all these people they are from Kentucky. I think this created the whole culture around food.

I know you are this proponent of buying local so that makes sense.

It is not just about buying local. You can not have a unique food identity or culture without a local farming community because all you have is a mass marketed food culture. It is not just about buying local food and supporting farmers but also what is my food identity and how do I support that. You can’t have a food identity without a local farming culture. You just can’t. It is really important. Even in New York City, you think about the Union Square Market, you think about all those orchards in New York. You go straight up the Hudson Valley and you have that huge agricultural wealth of New York State that creates the food identity for New York City. It may be multicultural. It doesn’t have to be pilgrimage. It can be multicultural. It doesn’t have to be what it always was. It changes with what the population is at that time, but a strong agricultural community supports those food traditions.

Do you have any favorite food and bourbon pairings?

I will be doing one of my favorite standbys and it is a weird one, an oldie but a goodie. I am going to be doing my Woodford Sea Scallops on the takeout menu for Holly Hill Inn. It is based on an old French recipe. It is seared sea scallops flamed in Woodford Reserve and then add a little lemon juice, crème fresh, and tarragon. We are going to do that with some spring vegetables coming on and carrots. We have done some cool cocktails recently with Coconut Milk. Think of a Bourbon Milk Punch. Dairy and Bourbon go well together and people don’t try that. They don’t think about that. We tried one with Coconut Milk last week called the Golden Hour. We did it for the Bourbon Classic. I thought it was really, really good. It was like Chai Coconut Milk. It had turmeric and all different kinds of spices. I am the Chef in Residence at Woodford Reserve. So what we are always looking at how to get to the spice notes form the wood and char in the bourbon. Spices you may find in mole or chai tea are invocative of those in bourbon.

What is one dish you love nobody would expect?

I love a good hot dog. A Chicago dog is the best. I am a secret hot dog lover.

What is the secret to a perfect Kentucky Hot Brown?

It is in the Mornay sauce. It is not supposed to be a yellow sauce. It needs to be white cheddar Mornay with sharp white cheddar. Before you go to broil, I always do a little bit of Mornay on the bottom of the dish, then toasted bread with no crust, then sliced roast turkey, then the white cheddar Mornay over the top, then twos trips of bacon in an ‘X’, then you have to grate parmesan cheese over the top before you put it in the oven. The purists never eat tomato on the Hot Brown. They only eat tomato on the side.

Is there a place you have traveled that has influenced your cooking or a dish that you have cooked?

I haven’t been able to travel a lot lately because I have so many restaurants and a kid. I have been to Italy and I love that simple Italian flavor. I feel like Roman ingredients, from ancient times to modern times, mirrors a lot of what we like in Kentucky as well, a lot of greens. I love French cooking. I was able to study with a fantastic woman who has since passed away named Madeleine Kamman, who wrote a series of cookbooks and had a little cooking show in the 80s. She was instrumental in shaping the way I thought about food and approached cooking and caused me to fall in love with French cooking.

Do you have any hidden gems in Kentucky that you would suggest people visit?

Shaker Village is one of my favorite places to go to. I love it. A lot of times in the summer they have these special paddle boat rides that you can take down the river which I love. The other place I love, one of my favorite places to go is the Falls of Ohio, outside of Louisville. It is these giant fossil beds. I think Kentucky owns the beds. It is on the Indiana border. Honestly one of my favorite places to go is Mammoth Cave. It is incredible. The history for the cave is so neat. There are a lot of cool places to visit. Ruth Hunt Candy Factory in Mount Sterling. Everybody knows about the Bourbon Trail and all the cool things to see there but I still always recommend it.

Once this is all over, do you have a dream travel destination?

We had dreamed this summer to start travelling internationally with our daughter. She is a sophomore in high school. So we had hoped we were go to. We were going to start with a trip around the British Isles. Next Summer we were going to go to France. I hope we can pick back up on those trips and do a grand European tour. I would love that next year. We have to see how much we can recover financially after this, and what kind of shape the country is in after this, and the world. I love travelling so any destination sounds really good.

I wanted to ask you about Top Chef. I am talking with Sara Bradley tomorrow. 

Paducah is a great travel destination where Sara has her restaurant Freight House. I dearly love her; she is a good friend of mine. I went to do a little lecture with her then did a dinner recently. We loved Paducah. Paducah freaking rocks. It is so much fun to go to Paducah. We highly recommend it.

You were on Top Chef Kentucky season. What was your favorite moment doing that?

The show I was on was the last one they taped in Kentucky. My favorite moment was sitting at the table with all the mentors, and when Sara brought out her dish, it was so far and away better than anyone else’s. It was this a-ha moment for everyone sitting at the table. I honestly felt so proud. I was really proud of her and the state. She did a dish she called Soup Beans. It was a real modern approach. It was the perfect dish for the moment. It was a special moment to be sitting at that table experiencing it. She blew them all away.

I loved that season and was so happy they chose to come to Kentucky. People outside the South and Midwest may not think of Kentucky as a food destination and it brought great light to that.

I think we will be forever thought of in a different way because of that show. That was my favorite moment. Then I got to tell her she won, which was my second favorite moment. I didn’t have to cast a single vote. It was a unanimous decision. I was really happy about that. It made me proud she won and won with a Kentucky Dish like the Soup Beans. What was interesting we taped that segment in June and didn’t air until the following February. The week before taping that segment, I had just done a Southern Foodways Alliance Dinner up in Lexington. We did a whole Soup Beans dinner and a video and tribute to Soup Beans. I had spent all this time doing Soup Beans work. One of our top selling dishes in our restaurants is a Soup Beans and Cornbread and that has been on our menu since we opened Wallace Station. It is on our menu of most of our restaurants. It is still one of our number one sellers and that meant so much being part of it.

Photo by Sara Jean Sanders – provided by the Chef

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