The cuisine of Chef Ouita Michel is known for its local foods and flavors. From the agriculture, bread and meats of Kentucky, to the Bourbon of its distilleries, there is a distinct Bluegrass taste in her culinary creations.
“I’m a Kentuckian, through and through,” says the well-known chef. “I identify greatly with my part of the country. I see myself as an ambassador of the area, its food, and its spirit — bourbon.”
Michel first opened a fine dining restaurant at the Holly Hill Inn in 2001. “Not a lot was available locally then,” she says. In the years since, thanks in part to the pro-local Kentucky Proud program, Michel has opened five additional businesses that feature regionally grown ingredients. These eateries include the Wallace Station Deli, Windy Corner Market and Restaraunt, Midway School Bakery and Smithtown Seafood.
Her experience — and success — with Kentucky-rural food is symbolic of the continued efforts by the state’s agricultural industry, following the federal “Tobacco Buyout” Act of 2004, to expand beyond its traditional tobacco base.
“There’s been this push to get local, small farmers to diversify their revenue streams, and diversify who they’re growing for, in order to help them move away from tobacco and onto other crops,” Michel says.
Michel remains in the thick of that movement. Her newest business opening is the Glenn’s Creek Café, a Kentucky Proud-certified restaurant in the visitor’s center at the Woodford Reserve Distillery.
“Three of our businesses are in Woodford County, so I’ve always thought of Woodford Reserve as being our hometown bourbon,” Michel explains. “And it’s also the primary bourbon consumed in this area.”
Glenn’s Creek Café is the culmination of the six years now that Michel has served as Chef in Residence at Woodford Reserve. (This role, Chef in Residence, also legally allows the distillery to serve liquor in individual servings, paired with food.) Michel’s time at Woodford Reserve has also led her to promote Kentucky products through another concept — the bourbon flavor wheel.
“When I became the Chef in Residence, I began thinking seriously about how Woodford Reserve would taste with food,” Michel recalls. “When you’re profiling a single spirit, you want to make sure that everything you bring out tastes good with that spirit.”
With bourbon, food pairings can be against the grain of what people believe about the potent spirit.
“Some people think that bourbon doesn’t go with any foods,” Michel explains. “But Bourbon can enhance certain food flavors. It can be a flavor builder instead of a flavor destroyer.”
The bourbon flavor wheel is a pie chart in which different slivers contain flavor notes that the distiller finds within that liquid. The wheel (pictured above as the feature image) is the basis of bourbon/food pairings hosted by Michel at Glenn’s Creek Café in Woodford Reserve.
“The distillers might find toasted nut in the whiskey’s finish, and I’ll think that that pairs naturally with toasted hazelnut,” Michel explains. “The Distiller’s Select we’ll pair with sorghum. Sorghum salad, sorghum dressing, sorghum juleps, sorghum-crafted butter — always fresh Kentucky sorghum. With the sorghum, the bourbon’s finish is extended, and the orange caramel notes are brought out more. We’ll also pair it with fresh oranges, or dried cranberries. You’ll see a lot of chutneys in salads.”
The Double Oaked is a more powerful spirit, with enhanced wood notes. “One thing it pairs well with is coconut macaroons,” Michel says, “Or pecan nut oats and pralines.”
Part of the goal with the flavor wheel is to help customers identify specific notes among the variety of flavors within premium bourbon.
“Sometimes food flavors can reflect back on the palate, and accent flavors within the spirits, so that the memory can latch onto those flavors and recognize them more easily,” Michel explains. “Other times, food flavors can contrast well with a spirit. For instance, the dry Bourbon rye pairs well with sweet cherry.”
Chris Morris, Woodford Reserve’s Master Distiller, is appreciative for Michel’s work with the flavor wheel.
“Ouita brings another perspective on how we present the flavors of Woodford Reserve to the consumer,” Morris says. “When Woodford Reserve is paired with the appropriate foods, it simply explodes on the palate. The food releases the pertinent flavors of Woodford in a way that leads to a greater appreciation of both the spirit and the food. It greatly enhances the tasting and drinking experience.”
It also makes bourbon — which sometimes can be an intimidating spirit for consumers — more approachable.
“Ouita’s Woodford Reserve food pairings have opened up a whole new level of appreciation and accessibility for consumers,” Morris explains. “Many who would never have tried a bourbon, much less Woodford Reserve, now have ‘permission’ to give it a try. Why? Her work has broken down the mindset that bourbon is a strong, harsh spirit, or that it is exclusively a ‘man’s drink’. Ouita has helped us demonstrate that Woodford Reserve is a sophisticated, approachable spirit with flavors much like those found in a great wine, craft beer or cognac.”
Michel is equally happy with how her pairings have helped change the opinions of female consumers.
“The flavor wheel has gotten a very positive response, especially from the women,” she says. “Kentucky females aside, a lot of women may think that bourdon is not a drink for them. But they can see how much the food changes the flavors of the bourbon and they really enjoy it.”
Even the most discerning drinkers can enjoy bourbon differently thanks to Michel.
“I’ve found that there are two camps among the bourbon aficionados,” explains Michel. “The first believe that you’re not allowed to mix bourbon with anything. You sit back with a glass of it and that’s it. The second thinks, ‘Let’s mix it with every sweet flavor there is. And then when they come in for our pairings, we tell them ‘Nothing is going into your glass. Every flavor experience is going to come from the food items.’ I think this is very eye opening for folks.”
Morris can see the change brought upon by Michel: “Her insights have allowed us to move Woodford out of the glass and onto the plate as part of the tasting experience.”