Ouita Michel has expanded his culinary empire … again. The eight-time James Beard Award nominee already has six restaurants (Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station, Windy Corner, Honeywood, Smithtown Seafood and Zim’s Café), a bakery (Midway Bakery), a cocktail bar (The Thirsty Fox), a special events division at Fasig Tipton, and a cookbook (“Just a Few Miles South.”)
To that list can now be added a cooking studio. The Holly Hill and Co. Cooking Studio on Main Street in Versailles officially opened July 6 with an informal cooking demonstration for a group of local media.
It will open to the public on July 16, with a listing of classes available through September on their website, hollyhillandco.com, but don’t expect a traditional cooking school.
You won’t find a sterile classroom-style setting with a properly aproned and toqued chef leading students through a series of culinary exercises.
Rather, Michel’s studio, filled with plants, local art and Kentucky Proud products, is reminiscent of your grandmother’s (admittedly well-equipped) kitchen.
And like your grandmother, she does the lion’s share of the work, while you sit comfortably – cocktail in hand – and learn from what she says and does.
“I like to think of this space as a place for storytelling and bringing people together through food,” says Michel.
Our small media group (the studio only has room for 16 with four tables of four) certainly were brought together in admiration of the menu Michel created for the occasion – Silver Dollar Hoe Cakes with nasturtium salsa verde and lump crab, and a cheese and tomato purslane salad.
A few overachievers offered their services in plating the food, while the rest of us were content to sample it.
“If you think about it, most of us learned to cook by watching someone else do it, explaining the methods and ingredients as they went along,” says Michel. “This is the best way to bring a recipe to life.”
As for the chef, he admits to a passion for teaching and sharing knowledge, and in doing so, prefers playing to a small audience. If she was an actress, she would probably opt for the intimacy of off-off-Broadway play rather than the grandeur of the Great White Way.
“It’s all about connecting with the audience on a more personal level,” she says.
Michel does that effortlessly – whether he’s talking about cooking dinner in his own small kitchen for his husband and daughter, or explaining how nasturtium flowers make an excellent flavor enhancer.
“Many of the herbs I use in my own restaurants and here at the cooking studio come from our garden at Holly Hill Inn,” she tells us.
If Michel appears effortlessly in front of her studio audience, she says the behind-the-scenes effort was anything but.
“What you are seeing here was two-and-a-half years in the making,” she says, going on to explain how until that time, all her restaurants were operating independently.
“Our first step was to organize them under one umbrella, Holly Hill and Co.,” said Michel, “and our next step was to establish a non-restaurant source of revenue.”
Hence, the opening of the Holly Hill and Co. Cooking Studio
“I am all about community which is the reason I moved back to Kentucky from New York City,” she says. “I have found that community in Lexington and especially, Midway.
“This is a dream come true,” she goes on. “A place apart from the chaos of a restaurant kitchen where we can connect with family and friends and learn about Kentucky culture and cuisine.”
Holly Hill & Co. Cooking Studio
where: 167 S.Main St. in Versailles
On line: hollyhillandco.com