Chef Ouita Michel has always made locally grown ingredients a priority in her cuisine.
That’s why it’s so good.
"For me, while studying French and Italian cuisine, I realized they use local agricultural artisan products in their food. And that's why it's so good. That's why from the beginning of wanting to be a chef, I've committed to supporting local agriculture. Buying local is a tradition that we seemed to abandon for a few decades. I love cooking straight from the garden."
She and her husband, Chris, bought the Holly Hill Inn in 2000 and opened the fine dining restaurant in May 2001. Ouita’s use of locally sourced foods both helps sustain Bluegrass family farms and provides her customers only the freshest, best-tasting fine cuisine. The devotion to local foods is evident also at Wallace Station Deli just outside Midway; Windy Corner Market and Restaurant, Lexington; The Midway Bakery, Midway; and Woodford Reserve Distillery outside Versailles, Ky., where Ouita is chef-in-residence.
Her restaurants have purchased more than $2 million of Kentucky-grown meats, dairy products, fruits and vegetables over the last 13 years.
Chef Ouita’s work earns accolades from local and national fans of her cuisine to wine and bourbon aficionados with her popular Wine Guild and new 1785 Bourbon Society events. She has been a James Beard Foundation Award nominee as Best Chef in the Southeast multiple times, competing against chefs in major metropolitan areas. Her restaurants are regularly featured in local and national media, such as USA Today, The San Francisco Chronicle, Southern Living and The New York Times travel guide 36 Hours.
Ouita and Chris are graduates of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Active in her community, Ouita is a member of Slow Food USA; congregational coordinator of Kids in the Kitchen and free community supper programs for Midway Christian Church; board member of FoodChain, a new non-profit food incubator in Lexington, Ky.; and is a member of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a statewide citizens group working to improve education for Kentuckians. She, Chris and their daughter, Willa, live in a 200-year-old cabin with an expansive garden adjacent to the Holly Hill Inn.
Donna was local before local was cool.
Before coming to work at Holly Hill Inn in 2004, Donna worked at the Kentucky Governor’s Mansion in Frankfort. Donna’s boss at the mansion was Rex Lyons (who was innkeeper at Holly Hill until Ouita and Chris bought it). “I had always been interested in food and cooking and often catered in the Frankfort area, so I was naturally drawn to the kitchen at the mansion. I found myself spending more time downstairs than upstairs and Rex reassigned me to an assistant chef's position, which eventually turned into the associate chef's position.”
At the mansion, Donna was always looking for sources of local foods. Donna had met Ouita just after she opened Holly Hill Inn, and knew of her devotion to using locally grown meats and produce. “Ouita was graciously helpful in sending me to wonderful growers,” Donna said.
The mansion’s kitchen staff was let go en masse during an administration change and Rex was determined to see that his staff all found jobs. “He recommended me to Chris and Ouita and they hired me as dining room manager.”
“I love working at Holly Hill Inn mostly because of Chris and Ouita, who feel like family now, and because of the beautiful food they make and because of our great customers who are so appreciative and supportive of what we do. Community is important to me and that's what we've nurtured over the last several years.”
Donna’s family is originally from Bellevue in Northern Kentucky, but she grew up in Frankfort and graduated from Franklin County High School in 1975. She was a journalism major at the University of Kentucky for three years, then left college to take a management position with Jerrico, parent company of Long John Silver’s, and spent the next 16 years working in restaurant and hotel management until joining the mansion staff during Paul Patton's administration. One of the highlights of her time at the mansion was preparing an all-Kentucky dinner for Princess Anne of Great Britain during her visit to the state.
Donna has been married for more than 30 years to Tom Lowry, and has two grown children, Katie Carney and Patrick Carney. She likes to write, cook, travel and is a proud veteran of the American Lung Association’s Bike Trek to Shakertown.
Roger met Ouita when she was a freshman on the University of Kentucky debate team, which he coached. “After limited high school debating experience, she turned into an outstanding college debater, ultimately winning the National Debate Tournament,” Roger said. “Steve Mancuso, our Wine Guildmaster, was also a great UK debater: He was named the outstanding individual debater at the National Debate Tournament his senior year.”
After Ouita graduated from UK in 1987, Roger followed her cooking career with a great deal of interest. When Ouita and Chris had the opportunity in 2000 to buy the Holly Hill Inn, he became an excited investor.
“Being associated with Holly Hill, as well as with Wallace Station and Windy Corner, has developed my taste buds. Ouita is such a creative and versatile chef that I've learned a great deal sampling a wide variety of dishes and cuisines. Sometimes I think I must be the best-fed person in Kentucky!
“Over the past several years I've also learned a good deal about wine from Steve. I hope I was able to teach Ouita and Steve as much about debate as they've taught me about food and wine.”
After 30 years at UK, in 2010 Roger retired and moved to Midway, where he has become even more involved with the business. “I'm doing something at one or more of the restaurants on a pretty much daily basis. I love Midway and continue to be excited about the many new directions in which our business is moving.”