Ouita Michel: A UK alumna who knows the taste of success

Ouita Michel prepares country ham plates for a Kentucky-themed dinner at James Beard House in New York City, New York, in February. 

UK alumna Ouita Michel has perfected her recipe for prosperity. To her, it’s delicious, and the customers at her chain of restaurants across Kentucky would probably agree.

Michel happily boasts seven restaurants: Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station, The Midway Bakery, Windy Corner Market and Restaurant, Smithtown Seafood, Glenn’s Creek Cafe and Honeywood. While some of these locations are rather new and others are well-established, all of these food stops are a testament of the same tenacity and passion Michel has had all her life.

Michel would enter the food industry, she had not always looked to the kitchen for her future. While she now competes against other top chefs for James Beard Foundation Award nominations, she used to compete top debaters for the National Debate Tournament championship.

When Michel first arrived at UK in the ‘80s, her passion leaned more toward debate than cooking. She had been on the debate team at Henry Clay High School and decided to major in political science to get on the debate team at UK.

Her college career was spent participating in debate, the honors program and the first class of Gaines fellows at UK. Michel credited these three programs with guiding her to the path she wanted to take in life. Among the people who also helped guide her were former poet laureate Jane Gentry Vance, Herb Reid and Michel’s debate coach, Roger Solt.

One of the proudest achievements in Michel’s life was winning the National Debate Tournament in her senior year, 1986, with a debate topic of education reform.

“It was a really near and dear subject to my heart,” Michel said.

Michel and her partner, David Brownell, beat Washington D.C.’s Georgetown College 4-1. The win cemented Michel as only the second woman to win the national debate championship. Though there were a few, yet talented, women debaters, Michel shined as an accomplished woman in what her coach calls a “male-dominated activity.”

Michel said it was a “fantastic moment” to be rewarded for working about 60 hours a week researching and practicing.

“Ouita and her partner winning the National Debate Tournament was the personal highlight of my coaching career, and it was certainly one of the highlights in the history of the debate program,” Solt said.

Solt said Michel improved more over her college career than other other student he coached.

“It is an extremely life-affirming experience to succeed at the highest level with any activity to which you have devoted long and intense effort,” he said.

Michel credits debit with one of her greatest moments, as well as leading her to her future career. The team traveled to places like Boston, Chicago and Atlanta, allowing Michel to experience a myriad of food along the way. Even though she loved cooking as a child, it was through these cross-country trips that she took cooking seriously.

This love inspired Michel to head to New York City and try the restaurant scene. The venture up north only made her love for food grow. Michel attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and graduated first in her class before bringing her talents back to the Bluegrass state.

Michel was able to get her feet in the door of the Kentucky food industry thanks to another successful female restaurateur, Debbie Long, owner of Dudley’s on Short. Long would become a mentor and an inspiration to Michel, along with other foodie women like Lucie Slone Meyers and Libby Murray.

“There were a lot of women in the restaurant business that were very successful in this area that were role models,” Michel said.

In 2000, Michel bought Holly Hill Inn and opened the restaurant the next year. Solt would then reappear in Michel’s life, this time for food instead of debate. He said he had followed her culinary career because he saw a “great culinary future” for her, plus he loved her cooking. He has been a business partner with his former debate student ever since.

Michel prides herself on her incorporation of Kentucky “food culture.” This includes farmers’ markets, fast food, restaurants, food trucks and even poetry about local agriculture. Michel said food culture includes everything from foods historically eaten in a specific location to the experience and production of food now and even the introduction of new types of food.

“It’s like what we write about food, what we think about food, where we buy food, how we eat food,” Michel said. “It can be defined by our individual families, and those individual families when they come together form communities, and those smaller communities come together and create a larger community that is Lexington and central Kentucky and then the commonwealth of Kentucky. It’s a big, interesting melting pot and trying to get people to think broadly about food culture rather than super narrowly.”

Each of Michel’s restaurants are a little different, but using locally produced foods is one thing every location has in common.

“If you’re using locally growth agriculture that’s part of what makes it Kentucky because this was grown in Kentucky from Kentucky soil,” she said.

Michel said she wants others to succeed as much as she has. She is involved with UK HealthCare and the International Society of Neurogastronomy in an effort to help chronically ill patients conquer appetite issues. She works with UK extension agencies and the College of Agriculture by helping match small producers with small markets. She occasionally speaks to the Lewis Honors College. She helps young adults hoping to enter into the culinary industry by promoting them and giving them challenges and advice. She tries especially hard to make her restaurants safe places for working women.

“I just try to make sure that in my businesses women feel supported, heard, empowered, and I want that for my daughter,” Michel said. “I feel that way about women, I feel that way about all kinds of different people, that we need to be tolerant and we need to listen to one another and everyone should be treated fairly.”

Michel has been such a positive impact on the community that UK will soon give its respect with an event. On April 21, the UK Art Museum will be hosting An Inspired Evening, a soiree and fundraising event honoring Michel. It will feature dance, music and food made by Michel-trained chefs, at $75 a ticket.

“Ouita is certainly an inspiration to me, and I’m sure she is to many others as well,” Solt said. “It is rare to find a person with her talents and her professional acumen who is also a genuinely compassionate and warm-hearted individual.”

Despite this praise, Michel remains humble. With plans of being a Donovan Scholar, she still sees herself as a student trying her best, not as a teacher to be followed.

“I don’t think of myself exactly as a role model because it’s kind of hard to live your life that way, but I just try to do and be the best, the kindest person that I can be and work hard and follow the golden rule,” she said.