The notion of opening a 65-seat fine dining restaurant in a tiny town with 1,600 residents seems a little misguided. But not if the town is Midway, KY, home to many of the world's most famous thoroughbred horse breeding operations (last year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, Smarty Jones, resides here now). And definitely not if the restaurant's chef is Ouita Michel. A native of Thermopolis, WY, Michel was valedictorian of her class at the Culinary Institute of America. She met her husband Chris (also a CIA grad) there, and the pair ran some of Lexington, KY's, most notable operations until purchasing the 150-year-old Holly Hill Inn in Midway in 2000. Daughter Willa arrived eight months ago.
Cool fridge. Your whole kitchen has a nice feeling to it.
It sure feels good to me. We lived upstairs over at the Inn until February of this year.
What was your setup there?
We had to use the same kitchen as Holly Hill.
Which you owned.
It was still complicated. The restaurant's food took up all the space and the kitchen was usually occupied. When I'd go downstairs to grab something for the family, everyone would start asking me work questions.
We bought this place—it's a log cabin on two acres—just last February. It's right next door to Holly Hill.
How close are you?
It's 60 steps, door to door.
It is. Now I just zip over from the restaurant when I want to make something for Willa.
What's the family's routine like now?
We spend all day over at the Inn, so breakfast is our one chance for a meal together.
What's on the menu then?
Both Chris and I are into smoothies. My freezer here is full of blueberries, and we add things like this flax seed, wheat gem and protein powder.
The smoothies sound good.
We have them probably four days a week. Chris got the recipe from Men's Health magazine. There's a book called The Abs Diet that has great smoothie recipes, too.
Think your daughter will like them?
She's already leaning that way. Willa loves this Stonybrook organic baby yogurt so much that I have to ration it.
Where does this coconut milk fit in?
That's for a chicken curry I make at home. It's my favorite.
So you cook at home on your days off?
Yes. I love to cook in a personal, private space, espcially now that I have one. A chef's job is more about orchestrating a meal than preparing it.
Do you offer many international-style dishes at the restaurant?
No. Our food at Holly Hill is about what you can make with Kentucky ingredients. I tried a Thai menu once, but it was a flop—for everyone but me.
Which raises the question: Where do Holly Hill's customers come from?
Everywhere. The horse business is huge in this area. We've just finished the spring season, which has Keeneland's big two-year-olds in training auction, then the Kentucky Derby.
Was Holly Hill your dream restaurant?
For at least 10 years.
And now that it's yours...?
Once we solved the cash flow puzzle here, it's been great. There's been a big payoff in our day-to-day lifestyle, too.