Despite an ‘epic fail’ or two, Michel prospers
Reporter’s note: I attended Henry Clay High School with Ouita Michel, then Ouita Papka, but with a graduating class of more than 500, I’m not sure we even met until our interview for this story. For one thing, she was a better student.
When Ouita Papka graduated from Lexington’s Henry Clay High School in 1982, she had no idea that her life’s work would involve being a chef and restaurant owner. She joined the debate team at the University of Kentucky, and took part in competitions around the country, some of them in much larger cities than Lexington.
Of course, when debaters aren’t filling the air with words, they, like the rest of us, need to fill their mouths with food. “We started eating at all these interesting little restaurants everywhere. So we’d eat Indian food in Boston … and we loved to go to Chicago because of Greek Town … and I just got kind of bitten by the bug,” she said. (Michel married husband and restaurant partner Chris Michel in 1993. Their daughter, Willa, is 12 years old. They live next door to the Holly Hill Inn.) However, the bug may have begun to work its way into her system before then. Growing up, she loved to cook, and still has notes from the first restaurant she “designed.” She called it “Creative Endeavors: a Ouita Papka Production.”
“On the first floor, I had a restaurant, and I’d drawn in all the tables, and on the upper floor, the mezzanine floor, was all an art gallery,” she said with a laugh. Her taste was not always so high-minded.
“When I was a kid, it was a huge treat when the Long John Silver’s opened on Main Street – it was a huge treat to go to (there) … on a Friday night with your mom and dad,” she said. Growing up, she also loved the long-since closed Shakey’s Pizza Parlor and, in college, the still-around Columbia Steak House. Michel said while a restaurant culture had begun to develop in Lexington in the late 1980s, she didn’t think of it as a career option for her.
While she debated what to do with herself after college, she and her debate team members taught high school students at camps around the country. During a seven-week stretch in Ann Arbor, Mich., they would take turns cooking, holding wine tastings, and dining at several nice restaurants there. “So I got more and more bitten by that bug and decided to give working in a restaurant a try …” she said.
However, her ride to her present role as chef/owner/operator was not always as smooth as freshly churned butter. While attending UK, her first restaurant job in Lexington ended after two weeks when one of the line cooks drank too much apple jack brandy meant for veal dishes and struck an elderly dishwasher on the head with a skillet. After that, chef John Ferguson quit and took Michel with him to Flornz, an Italian restaurant its owners hoped would one day become a chain restaurant that sat where the chain restaurant Olive Garden now stands.
After graduating from UK, she moved to Manhattan to live with two friends who’d grown up in New York City. She lived and worked there for two years, then joined the C.I.A. – the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., not the spy agency outside Washington, D.C.
“I loved the restaurant culture. I just loved working in restaurants, and I loved the people. It was so diverse and exciting,” she said.
On the first day of her 22 months there, she befriended a fellow student from Long Island, N.Y., named Chris Michel. They were married six years later. While in the Big Apple, her first job was at at a macrobiotic vegan restaurant on 22nd Street. She still recalls the night Bill Murray walked into the kitchen. “It just blew my mind. I was on cloud nine. He was just hanging out in the kitchen, talking to us, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m working in a restaurant in New York City and Bill Murray’s in my kitchen, talking to me,’” she said, chuckling again.
Today, the co-owner of the Ouita Michel Family of Restaurants has acquired her own bit of celebrity after being profiled on the Food Network, National Geographic’s “Traveler” show and in magazines like Southern Living. (The host of the Food Network’s “Drive-ins and Dives” program ranked the Big Brown Burger at Wallace Station in his all-time top five.)
After the wedding, she had no desire to return to New York City, though she’d loved her time there.
“It’s a really great place, but when you’re a chef, it’d be very difficult to find your own restaurant and open your own business, and that was sort of my dream and Chris’s dream, and here, everything felt so accessible,” she said. An extended network of friends and family members were an asset back home, too.
“If we wanted help writing a business plan, we could call up the president of Central Bank and go down there and have an hour-and-a-half meeting with him about how to write a business plan – and why the one we were showing him was so bad,” Michel said, laughing.
All these years and restaurants later, Michel said she still feels that way – that there’s a whole community rooting for them.
“That’s a hard feeling to reproduce in a big city like New York,” she said. She and Chris now own or operate seven restaurants: Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station, Midway School Bakery, Glenn’s Creek Café at Woodford Reserve; and, in Lexington, Windy Corner Market and Restaurant, Smithtown Seafood and Honeywood (named for Honeywood Parrish Rouse, who grew up in what became the Holly Hill Inn), which opened May 3.
Michel doesn’t mind sharing the occasional slip along the way – among them, her idea to bring Thai food to the Holly Hill Inn, which she and Chris bought in December of 2000.
“Bangkok in the Bluegrass” was an epic fail, she said.
Diners didn’t like it, some of them sent hate mail, and the Vietnamese Fish Curry she hoped would be a standout stank so badly, especially to a pregnant Ouita Michel, that it lasted just two weeks.
“These were part of my young chef aspirations – to cook Thai street food in an antebellum southern home in Midway, Kentucky. Now why you would ever think that is beyond me and another example of how far we’ve come in business,” she said. “Chris was like, ‘If you ever do another Thai menu, I’m going to kill you. You’re banned from it.’”
However, 15 years later, she brought some of those dishes back, and this time around, they were far better received. She has no desire to stop cooking and plans to write cookbooks, too, though it’s unlikely that a recipe for Vietnamese Fish Curry will make the final cut.
“I’ve had a million fails … but you can’t have a creative life and be afraid of failure,” she said. “That’s one thing I love about cooking. You start in one place and end up in another …”