The “Farm to Table” Movement seemed to be a simple concept, or perhaps not a concept at all, for those of us who grew up on a farm. Our vegetables were from the gardens we grew, milk came from the cows in the barn, and eggs came from the chickens in the hen house. But what may have been routine for some, was not for others. As availability of processed foods became more common, the seasonality and direct farmer connection lessened in some areas of the country. It was time for a revolution! In fact, the farm to table movement has been described as an “offshoot of the hippie movement” in the 1970s.
While the 1970s are gone, the staying power of connecting the food on our plate back to the farm is not. From culinary pioneers like Alice Waters or James Beard to today’s chefs like Kentucky-based Ouita Michel, the passion remains. It’s a passion that creates community, culinary delights and connections to the farms around us. The farm to table movement is alive and well — thanks to the culinary world.
Culinary Commitment — from Alice to Ouita
When Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in the 1970s, a new restaurant concept offering fresh seasonal and local food direct from the farmer was born. While Waters may be described as a pioneer of the farm to table movement, others credit James Beard, the iconic American chef and leader in clean cooking. Beard was known as a supporter of local farmer’s markets and believed in the power of American cuisine years before the “movement” began. Over the past 50 years, chefs across the country and globally have continued to define and refine the farm to table concept as interest in supporting local farmers grew. Chefs like Kentucky-based Ouita Michel epitomize the “new wave” of culinary experts committed to creating the culinary farm to fork community.
Ouita Michel in Her Own Words
I have always admired the entrepreneurship and culinary delights Ouita and her husband Chris have brought to the culinary scene in Central Kentucky in the past 20 years. Whether it’s enjoying a sandwich at one of their historic properties in horse country, or dining at the iconic Holly Hill Inn, the passion for connecting the farm to the table is always at the forefront of their establishments. However, it was not until this summer during a University of Kentucky alumni event that I had the opportunity to meet Ouita — a fellow UK alumnus.
My thanks to Marketing Director Mike Hilton for facilitating a virtual conversation with Ouita about her influences and vision for her work. Her responses to my questions are below.
MSE: What lessons did you learn from family meals growing up?
OM: My mother, Pam Sexton, was a wonderful cook and a great believer in healthy eating. My dad, Ray Papka, taught at the University of Kentucky School of Medicine so we grew up in a university community where we were exposed to a lot of ethnic cuisine, thanks to Lexington’s international residents. Both my parents were very creative, and our house was always full of books and art and artists.
MSE: Did you raise a garden or have farm/agriculture connections growing up?
OM: My great-grandpa Zim, whom we named Zim’s Café (downtown Lexington) after, grew a huge vegetable garden in my hometown of Thermopolis, Wyoming. It was pretty much the envy of the town.
MSE: What was the inspiration to pursue a culinary degree/career (post University of Kentucky graduation)?
OM: I wrote my first restaurant business plan and menus while I was still in high school. Later, my longtime business partner, Roger Solt, was my college debate coach at the University of Kentucky. We traveled all over the country going to tournaments and Roger was passionate about taking us to the best restaurants in every city.
MSE: We’re thrilled that you came back to Kentucky. What was the “carrot” that brought you back to connect farm to table?
OM: I met my husband Chris while we were both at the Culinary Institute of America and we came home to Kentucky to get married. That’s when we decided to open a restaurant of our own, a restaurant that would be rooted simultaneously in Kentucky’s artistic and agricultural traditions and the wonderfully seasonal menus of continental Europe.
MSE: I’m familiar with your use and promotion of Kentucky growers and farmers. What main menu items are sourced locally? What do you grow within your operation versus collaborating with the farming/agriculture community?
OM: We’ve bought pork and beef from Patrick and Leeta Kennedy of Stone Cross Farm in Taylorsville for years. In 2021, we served over 18,000 of their Kentucky Proud hamburgers at Wallace Station alone. We were one of the first CSA subscribers to sign on with Three Springs Farm in Nicholas County, owned by our good friends David Wagoner and Arwen Donahue. We use locally ground flour and cornmeal from Weisenberger Mills, a sixth-generation family business in Woodford County. And of course, Happy Jack’s Farm in Franklin County, owned by Richard and Lee Ann Jones, is a mainstay for tomatoes, green beans, corn, and both summer and winter squash. David Wagoner oversees local food purchases for all our restaurants, assisted by a local foods aggregator who is responsible for sourcing, procuring, and delivering fresh produce to our chefs throughout the year. David also gardens at Holly Hill Inn, where we have a kitchen herb garden, a tea garden, and a modest vegetable garden where our chefs can experiment with both heirloom and hybrid seed varieties.
MSE: From your perspective, can the local Kentucky food systems be economically viable for the long-term? If so, what will it take?
OM: Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. I can’t stress this enough. We need more meat processing capacity, more facilities to produce value-added goods, better distribution systems, greater resources for both farmers and chefs to facilitate getting fruits, vegetables, and meat from the farm to the kitchen. Our Kentucky Department of Agriculture has done and continues to do an amazing job with the resources currently available, but collectively we need to express the why and who of Kentucky’s rich food culture. [This] is why we founded hollyhillinn.com — a platform for telling the stories of Kentucky people, places and ingredients, and how they connect us all.
Keeping a Timeless Revolution
The commitment of culinary chefs to the farm to table movement throughout the country and globally are more than a “feel good” story. It’s about creating economically sustainable regional food systems. Like Ouita stated, infrastructure — whether in Kentucky or Colorado — is essential to building the bond between farmers, chefs and consumers … and keeping the farm connection on the table.
Author’s note: Ouita Michels operates an inn, seven restaurants, a bakery and an events business in central Kentucky. These include Honeywood, Smithtown, The Thirsty Fox, Windy Corner Market and Zim’s Café in Lexington; the Holly Hill Inn and Midway Bakery & Café in Midway; and Wallace Station in Versailles.
In 2021, she unified operations under the new banner “Holly Hill and Co.,” celebrating Kentucky food culture, agriculture and the arts. Her next project, now underway, is launching a new generation of chefs and culinary professionals to continue the legacy of promoting Kentucky food and farmers.