Ouita Michel, Executive Chef/Owner
Ouita Michel has always made locally grown ingredients a priority in her restaurants.
That’s why the cuisine is 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. Michel’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 her other restaurants: Wallace Station Deli just outside Midway; Windy Corner Market and Restaurant and Smithtown Seafood, in Lexington; The Midway Bakery, Midway; and Woodford Reserve Distillery outside Versailles, Ky., where Michel is chef-in-residence and operates Glenn’s Creek Café and Glenn’s Creek Catering. Her latest restaurants include Honeywood and Smithtown at the Summit, opened in 2017 at the Summit at Fritz Farm development in Lexington. In November 2018, Michel opened her eighth restaurant and bar, Zim’s Cafe and The Thirsty Fox, in downtown Lexington’s beautifully renovated courthouse.
Her restaurants have purchased almost $3 million of Kentucky-grown meats, dairy products, fruits and vegetables over the last 17 years. Her reputation and commitment to sustainability have earned speaking invitations and awards from local, regional and national organizations.
Michel’s work earns accolades from local and national fans of her cuisine. Bourbon aficionados will find her restaurants along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail — watch for Bourbon in some of the menus! She has been a James Beard Foundation Award nominee as Outstanding Restaurateur and as Best Chef Southeast numerous times, competing against chefs in major metropolitan areas. Michel is 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. Michel and her restaurants are regularly featured in local and national media, such as The New York Times, Southern Living, Garden & Gun, Food Network and Cooking Channel.
Active in her community, Ouita Michel is a member of Slow Food USA; Les Dames d’Escoffier; free community supper programs coordinator for Midway Christian Church; board member of FoodChain, a non-profit food incubator in Lexington, Ky.; Hindman Settlement School, which is dedicated to enriching Central Appalachian culture; and is a member of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a statewide citizens group working to improve education for Kentuckians. Recent honors include the Fayette Alliance Agricultural Excellence Award and the Bluegrass Tomorrow Josephine Abercrombie Award, the group’s most prestigious honor, given to a person who contributes tirelessly to improve quality of life in the Bluegrass. She, Chris and their daughter, Willa, live in a 200-year-old cabin with an expansive garden adjacent to the Holly Hill Inn.
Tyler McNabb, Chef de cuisine
Tyler McNabb is one of the few lucky people who never struggled with knowing what to do with their lives. He would own a restaurant. He wrote about owning a restaurant for high school homework assignments (one of these essays won him a Papa John’s scholarship for college). He stayed up late to watch chef Anthony Bourdain’s program, “No Reservations” on The Travel Channel. And Bourdain’s book, “Kitchen Confidential,” was one of his high school graduation presents.
But even earlier than high school, he learned to love cooking, and how to cook with love, from his grandmother.
“Everybody else in the family would go off to talk or do something else, but I would stay up all night with my grandmother cooking,” McNabb said. “She adored me.
“I love feeding people, which I learned from her. She would make a ton of food even for just a few family members around.”
After graduating from Harrison County High School in Cynthiana, Ky., McNabb enrolled in the hospitality program at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. He considered restaurant management but wanted to be in the kitchen. Because the UK program did not include extensive hands-on kitchen instruction, he transferred to Sullivan University and earned an associate’s degree in culinary arts.
While at Sullivan, McNabb worked as an extern in Chef Ouita Michel’s Holly Hill Inn kitchen. After earning his degree, he worked at Michel’s Windy Corner Market in Lexington, quickly moving from dishwasher to line cook. He then moved to Holly Hill as a line cook, and was promoted to sous chef. Michel recently promoted McNabb to chef de cuisine. He will manage kitchen operations and help Michel with menu writing.
Ouita has given McNabb space to be creative, such as creating menus for Holly Hill Inn’s Around the World in 80 Days annual dinner program. He is fascinated by fermenting and pickling, and is reading a book called The Art of Fermentation. He has pickled several vegetables from local farmers, such as beets, cucumbers, green beans and carrots. McNabb also keeps a pot of kimchi, made from local bok choi, that is more than a year old. “It’s pretty funky, but is delicious,” he said.
Local sourcing and sustainability, at the heart of Michel’s restaurant group, speaks to McNabb.
“I like how Ouita supports local farmers and artists, and her restaurants are Kentucky Proud. I could not have picked a better restaurant group to work for.
“Ouita’s business acumen, management skills, personality and obviously her cooking skill have by far been the biggest influence on me and my career.
“My daily routine is never the same. I love going out to tables and talking with customers about our food.
“I love my job.”
Donna Hecker, director, Holly Hill Events
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. When I started spending more time downstairs than upstairs, Rex named me an assistant chef, and eventually associate chef.”
At the mansion, Donna was always on the lookout for local food sources. 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 so gracious and helpful in sending me to wonderful growers,” Donna said.
When the mansion’s kitchen staff was let go en masse during an administration change, Rex was determined to see that they all found new 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 is originally from Bellevue in Northern Kentucky, but she grew up in Frankfort and graduated from Franklin County High School in 1975. She studied journalism at the University of Kentucky before leaving college to take a management position with Jerrico, parent company of Long John Silver’s. She spent the next 16 years working in restaurant and hotel management until joining the mansion staff during Gov. 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, and two grandchildren, Lukas and Emerson. She likes to write, cook, travel and meddle in politics.
Roger Solt, Business Partner
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, and the family of Ouita’s restaurants, 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.”
Michaela Henderson, events coordinator, Holly Hill Events
Michaela grew up in a warm and welcoming home in Lexington, a hub of hospitality for friends and family for as long as she can remember. This experience led her to her first job in food service at age 16 when she joined the Ouita Michel Family of Restaurants, working at Woodford Reserve Distillery’s Picnic on the Porch.
Michaela attended the University of Kentucky and received a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management and tourism in 2018. During her college years, she worked at Apiary Fine Catering and Events and as a server and host at the Holly Hill Inn. Upon graduation, Michaela moved into a full-time position as events coordinator with Holly Hill Events.
“I love working for Holly Hill Events because we get to bring everything that people love about this company — the love for Kentucky farms, cuisine, and community — to the events industry,” she said.
“I love getting to work alongside our amazing clients from the very first site visit through the day of the event, helping them create the perfect event for their guests. The best part of it all is that I get to do it with such a talented and supportive team!”