Ouita Michel says she’s not a person “who lives in memory.” A lot like her grandmother who described herself as “a rolling stone,” Michel’s always on the move, looking forward, not back. That’s how in 20 years she became Central Kentucky’s best known chef while opening six restaurants and a bakery.
So, when it finally came time to write her first cookbook – due out in April 2021 with advance purchases available – based on the food at her casual restaurants, Michel had to do something she rarely does: “sit down and focus on the past to tell those stories.”
“Just a Few Miles South: Timeless Recipes from our Favorite Places” includes more than 150 recipes from Windy Corner Market, Wallace Station, Zim’s, The Midway Bakery and Smithtown Seafood and the stories of how each was launched and the people who made them work.
As she worked on the book, “each recipe would conjure up another story of Wallace’s early days or of some customer,” Michel said. “It was really kind of nice.”
Michel plans to write another cookbook one day that recounts the story and menus of Holly Hill Inn, her signature, white-tablecloth restaurant in Midway. But that will be more of a “a chef-oriented book, a biography in a way.”
This first book, she said, is more for the home cook who wants to make brown beans and cornbread or creamy chicken and mushroom soup, or the “young person making scones for their family on Sunday morning,” she said. “It’s that kind of cookbook.”
People have been asking Michel for a cookbook for years and, indeed, this one has been years in the making. About six years ago she began working with co-author Sara Gibbs – at that time working at the Michel franchise at Woodford Reserve – on organizing and writing down all of the recipes. They broke them down into family size portions and then sent each recipe to four or five people to test in a home kitchen. Those testers commented not just on the proportions but also on how well the recipes read.
But life went on and often overtook the cookbook. “We kept getting interrupted, we opened Honeywood, we opened Zim’s, Sara retired and moved to Florida,” Michel said, “but we never stopped thinking about it.”
They persisted and in the last two years the book came together with the help of local artist Brenna Flannery who has developed illustrations that are reminiscent of the simple line drawings common to church auxiliary cookbooks but have a modern flair.
“It will feel almost like a graphic novel,” Michel said.
Also credited as a co-author is Genie Graf, the marketing director at Michel’s restaurant group, whose principal role was editing the content. Graf said she also played the “role of home cook when testing several recipes,” including the sour cream apple pie.
She and her husband “ate the entire thing in two days,” she said. Graf was also “surprised at how easy the breads are to bake,” for which she credited Gibbs, saying she “tested the daylights out of the breads, to be sure the recipes would work in a home oven.”
“Just a Few Miles South” will be published by the Fireside Industries imprint, a partnership founded in 2018 between the University Press of Kentucky and the Hindman Settlement School, where Michel is on the board of directors along with author Silas House, who wrote the foreword to the cookbook.
The Fireside venture works “to choose titles and authors most representative of Appalachia, its culture, history, and people,” said Brooke Raby with the University Press. Michel’s book will be the fourth published by Fireside and “is a wonderful fit for the imprint,” Raby said. “Food is a unique reflection of the agriculture, economics, influences, identity, and social values of the people who prepare and eat it.”
Michel and the chefs at the restaurants featured in this cookbook recount not only recipes but also “the traditions and stories behind them.”
The story behind Michel’s origins as a chef go back to when she started cooking in her early teens. “I loved cookbooks,” she said.
Eventually she acquired over 4,000 which she uses as references, reading the recipes but never following them exactly.
Returning to reading and writing recipes for this book, she said, “reminded me of what it was like when I first started cooking, and I loved that.”
“Just a Few Miles South” is priced at $24.95 and can be ordered at ouitamichel.com for pickup in April (or to be mailed with an additional fee.) People who pre-order by April 20 get a ticket to a book launch party on April 23 at Fasig-Tipton where they can pick up their signed copy, plus a monthly email with recipes that aren’t in the book.