When Ouita Papka Michel and her partner won the University of Kentucky national debate title in 1986, there were only men’s watches available to award those in the final round.
It still irks her.
But the debate experience gave her the ability to marshal information like a field commander. Watching her debate was to see the kind of raw drive that predicted that she would excel at whatever she chose.
She chose local food.
To see Ouita Michel in person, you don’t think: Here comes the queen of Bluegrass restaurants. She is casual in both dress and demeanor and, as is the case with the best of Kentuckians, she sees no strangers.
Don’t mistake the casual for sloppy standards: Michel is a powerful woman in the Bluegrass, one of the area’s most successful chefs, with six popular locally sourced restaurants and two more on the horizon, including Honeywood, scheduled to open in the next month at The Summit at Fritz Farm.
Her standards for being on the Michel team also are high: When you enter a Ouita Michel restaurant, you are treated as if you and the neighborhood where you live are the most important things going on in the lives of those who serve you. Your food will have been chosen and cooked carefully, with an eye to local food and quality: Michel estimates that she spends at least 10 percent more on food on the dollar than chain restaurants do.
Michel bluntly defines what’s wrong with factory food and restaurants that give customers cheap food carelessly prepared in a standardized environment: “It’s not that good food is expensive. It’s just that Americans are paying too much for crap food.”
In 2017, at 52, Michel maintains that food is best when it comes from area producers working to high standards, and served with creative twists on traditional Kentucky recipes: Woodford County baby lettuces lightly dressed, Bluegrass eggs Benedict with Weisenberger Mill cheese grits, and steamed vegetables fresh from gardens just down the road.
But more than that, Michel emphasizes hospitality in her restaurants and ethical treatment of her employees, to whom she provides medical insurance, a rarity in the restaurant business.
Her restaurants include Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station, Midway Bakery and Glenn’s Creek Café at Woodford Reserve in Woodford County; Windy Corner and Smithtown Seafood in Fayette County; and, coming within the next month, Honeywood . A second Windy Corner will open, probably within the next year, at downtown Lexington’s renovated Courthouse on Main Street.
When Michel was at UK in the 1980s, it seemed that every other promising student was going to law school.
“I, like everyone around her, was just baffled by her choice of vocation,” said Rona Roberts, a food blogger and host of “Hot Water Cornbread” on Lexington Community Radio. “I think she knew she wanted to play a part in Kentucky’s quality of food.”
Roberts said Michel realized “that people who have this commitment to local food are not just in it for the cachet or the trendiness. ... She has had to persist. It’s a day-by-day commitment.”
After returning to Kentucky for her wedding, Michel decided to stay. She missed her family, and she wanted any children she and Chris had to be close to their grandparents. Her own grandmother was in Wyoming. Michel felt she had missed a lot of time with her living far away.
At her bridesmaids luncheon, she got her first look at Holly Hill Inn in Midway. She and Chris knew then that they wanted to buy it.
But first, there was the matter of getting a job.
She made a cold call to Dudley’s, then on Upper Street, where then-chef John Foster immediately hired her.
“I got ’em both,” Foster, the executive chef at Dudley’s Restaurant from 1990-2009, said of the married Michels — Ouita to cook, Chris eventually as a pastry chef. Foster is now at The Sage Rabbit on Ashland Avenue.
“We were building a culture at Dudley’s at that time of using local food and promoting it on the menu,” Foster said. “People like Ouita and Chris knew going in what the culture was. When she dropped her résumé off, obviously she was going to be steeped in the importance of food in culture.”
At Dudley’s, Michel learned to cook massive meals and how to put together specials, learning to pair local ingredients with signature flair.
“It was that kind of fun that we had that I think solidified what we wanted to do,” Foster said. “She decided that she was going to stay here, make that kind of statement here.”
Michel was getting invaluable experience, but not much money: She was making $7 an hour.
Foster and Dudley’s owner Debbie Long were then making the move into local food, where locally based restaurants establish relationships with Bluegrass farms for vegetables, fruit and meat. Farmers coming out of tobacco farming were trying new markets, including vegetables and even pond-raised shrimp.
“It was an exciting time,” Michel said. “It still is, to me.”
Michel has a passion for vegetables: Ask her to name a favorite food, and she’ll start envisioning the first in-season asparagus, then fresh peas and finally morel mushrooms. (She also likes old-fashioned cobbler.)
Roberts said the Michels also have an unerring nose for the best among the current crop of area Mexican restaurants. Her go-to favorite, though, might surprise a few people: It’s Durango’s in Idle Hour Shopping Center. She has eaten there since she was a student at Henry Clay High School. She took her daughter, Willa, now 12, there when she was an ebullient toddler. It feels like home.
Michel was born in Thermopolis, Wyo. Her parents moved the family to Lexington when she was young. She remembers when UK had gardening plots and faculty families swapped vegetables.
Her parents, Raymond and Pamela Papka, divorced when Ouita was a high school senior at Henry Clay. Pam Papka would later marry Bob Sexton, who helped found the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.
Ray Papka’s interest in “brain foods” inspired Michel to dedicate a 2010 special event to foods that are good for the brain, including dark and richly colored fruits and vegetables, with seeds, nuts and vitamin C. Papka, now retired from UK and an artist, lives near the Wallace Station restaurant in Woodford County.
Nurturing local food chefs
Pam Papka Sexton, a writer and artist, died in 2014, a few years after her husband, Bob Sexton, died in 2010. That was a difficult time for Michel; she recalls feeling that her support system was slipping away, that it was time to nurture the next generation.
Pam Sexton “was an outstanding health-nut cook,” her daughter said. “We had the yogurt maker upstairs, and were doing batik over in the basement.”
Michel calls attending UK “the best thing that ever happened to me.” She was one of the first Gaines Fellows at UK, a distinction given to students based on academic performance, an ability to conduct independent research, interest in public issues and desire to enhance understanding of the human condition through the humanities.
Meeting Ray Betts, the founder of the Gaines Center, and J.W. Patterson, director of debate, motivated Michel to excel at UK, she said.
“Everybody in debate loved good food and good wine,” she said, and their passion for it was so strong, the debate team had a cooking club. “It wasn’t clear to me I could be a chef, but I loved gourmet restaurants.”
After graduation, she moved to New York and began working at a macrobiotic and vegan restaurant called The Health Pub, where she saw celebrities including Woody Allen, Mia Farrow and Bill Murray. She later cooked for Shakespeare in the Park and John Clancy’s East, now defunct.
After Dudley’s, she worked at Dupree Catering and then at the now-closed Emmett’s off Tates Creek Road. She left Emmett’s in 2000, the same year she and Chris bought Holly Hill Inn, and the Ouita Michel brand began to be built.
The Michels’ Holly Hill Inn opened on May 9, 2001. It’s housed in the kind of gently aged Midway mansion that must spring to mind every time someone starts to sing “My Old Kentucky Home.” Michel kept a tally of what everyone ate on opening night, to see what worked.
“We try not to chase food trends too much,” Michel said. “But I’m a child of the ’80s. I love continental dining.”
In 2004, Michel was guest chef at the James Beard House in New York with a menu that included caviar from Kentucky paddlefish, lamb from Elmwood Stock Farm in Scott County, country ham from Happy Hollow Farm in Washington County, cheese made by Kenny Mattingly in Glasgow, and green beans grown by the Woodford County Growers Cooperative.
She cooked again at the Beard House in 2010. She was a semifinalist for best chef Southeast for five consecutive years, 2008 to 2012, and 2016 outstanding restaurateur.
Her newest restaurant, Honeywood, will have 150 seats. Michel hopes to have a soft opening and test meals by the end of April, and an opening about the first of May.
The menu identifies it as “Honeywood: A Ouita Michel Restaurant.” Her family members are among the investors, so the joke is that all the children have their college funds tied up in Honeywood’s success.
Why is it called Honeywood? “Honeywood” was a real person. Honeywood Parrish Rouse’s husband, Howard, and his father earned state fair champion trophies for their Hampshire hogs, raised near Midway. She died in 1990.
Honeywood dishes include Kentucky victory hemp salad, Whitesburg soup beans, vegetarian beet loaf and a Black Hawk Kentucky Proud steak seared in duck fat. Dishes on the brunch and regular menus run from $12 to $30. Michel wants many of her offerings to come in at around $20, a price point she considers important — affordable, yet made with quality local offerings.
The restaurant at The Summit breaks from the Michel template: her past efforts have a woody, country feel, even the elegant Holly Hill Inn. Honeywood, in a brand spanking new shopping, office and retail development, is a new venue for Michel to bring her gospel of local food, clever recipes, hospitality and value on the dollar to a suburban marketplace. (There will be wood, though. Michel insists on it.)
Chef Josh Smouse, who got his culinary start making tortillas at a Lexington Don Pablo’s, took a somewhat circuitous path to Honeywood. At one point, he returned to UK, got an accounting degree and went to work for the state revenue department.
He recalls Michel telling him that at Honeywood, “It’s your menu, Josh, but don’t forget to put chicken salad in there.”
Asked how she does it all, Michel laughs. It’s the question she is asked most often. First, she now has an operations manager to oversee her various businesses.
Second, “I don’t work in the kitchen anymore. ... It’s so funny that people think I’m in all these places, cooking.”
The Michel mini-empire has 120 employees spread out over its various restaurants and markets. She sees herself now as bringing up the next generation of Bluegrass chefs: “You can run your kitchen or you can run your business, but you can’t run both.”
But it’s not quite true that she’s out of the kitchen. Jim Nance, the Stamping Ground man known for his expertise in cast-iron cookware, presented the Michels with a hickory nut pie when he first met them and invited them into Midway Christian Church.
Nance has sold cast iron to Michel for herself and daughter Willa (who aspires to be a contestant on the Food Network show “Chopped Junior”) and just delivered 30 cast-iron pieces for Honeywood.
But this past Monday, he saw Michel preparing food for the church’s monthly free dinner for Midway residents. The dinners use locally grown meats and produce whenever available.
“She does great things for our church,” Nance said. “She donates so much of her time. ... She is really so down to earth, so great with people.”
Michel lives the principles of her business in her life, he said.
At Honeywood, Michel said, “We’re going to show people what local food looks like. We’re going to shout it from the rooftops. ... Then young people will see food as an entrepreneurial opportunity for themselves.”
“It’s an experiment that Josh and I are running, and I know that we’ll succeed.”