By Ouita Michel
As a young cook, I didn’t want to think. After years of debating and writing papers, discussing and taking tests in college, all I wanted to do was work in a kitchen. In 1987, after graduating from the University of Kentucky, I headed to New York City and threw myself into cooking with a kind of innocent, reckless abandon. It was intoxicating to chop vegetables and toss pans at a hot stove. Thankfully, New York is filled with kind souls who hired me and protected me, like a baby bird, until I figured out how to perform basic kitchen work. At one of my early jobs, at John Clancy’s East on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I boldly assured the chef I could filet fish. Loads of skate wings, whole swordfish, blackback flounder and whole monkfish came rolling in from the Fulton Fish Market, then in Manhattan.
These were fish I had never seen, never even knew existed. I had never fileted a fish in my life. I stood, almost crying at the fish table for 12 hours, until the pastry chef took pity on me and showed me, VERY reluctantly, what to do. It turned out to be one of the best cooking jobs I ever had.
Thirty years later, my approach has changed and now I spend all my time thinking, talking, teaching, writing menus, meeting farmers and running a restaurant business that has reasonable prices, uses local products and makes everything from scratch. It’s more difficult than you think. The young chefs in our kitchens do the slicing, dicing, flipping and stirring while I monitor from the sidelines, unless it’s an emergency. By the way, I can filet a fish in under 5 minutes.
Lately folks tell me I’m crazy. They worry I’m stretched too thin, that perhaps that I am like Icarus, flying too close to the sun with wax wings that will melt and send me crashing. In April, we are opening Honeywood, a large modern restaurant in the heart of Lexington’s most developed landscape, on the corner of Man O’ War Boulevard and Nicholasville Road. Honeywood is a departure from our other locations, because it’s not on a country lane, not in an old house or building and not along a scenic byway. People ask us, “Why there?”
We have a mission in our small company that we’ve held on to since Day One: to protect and enrich the unique food culture of Central Kentucky, our community, where we live. We buy Kentucky farm-grown ingredients, we use time-tested Kentucky recipes. We want our guests to be able to identify us as Kentucky restaurants. That mission does not mean the food is old-time. Our chefs companywide are allowed, even encouraged, to use a Thai technique or an African or Indian spice. Our community today is diverse, and we want to keep our cuisine alive and growing. Honeywood is on track to purchase $300,000 a year of farmgate goods; not soda, not candy, not ice, but ingredients such as lettuces, chicken, eggs, tomatoes, onions, corn and hemp oil. Add in all the other Kentucky Proud products and the number climbs to more than a half-million dollars. After 16 years of operations, and now seven locations, our company’s farmgate purchases will likely top $5 million dollars in 2018. The best way to enrich our food culture is to put money into the pockets of small family farmers so that we can keep them in business and young people can begin to see a future on the farm.
Jeffrey Bayer, president and CEO of the company that is bringing The Summit at Fritz Farm to life, and his daughter Lindsay came to meet with me almost four years ago. They had a vision for local food and local businesses in The Summit, right alongside the retail heavy hitters that were lining up to lease space. We were unsure about being in such a large retail environment, but the Bayer team patiently persisted and offered guidance every step of the way. Now we can’t wait to open Honeywood!
Many restaurants out Nicholasville Road are headquartered elsewhere, and reflect national brand development and purchasing strategies. Not this operation. This one is homegrown. Honeywood, the restaurant, is named for a Kentucky native, Mrs. Honeywood Parrish Rouse, who grew up at Holly Hill Inn in Midway. The restaurant will showcase her reputation for Kentucky hospitality to a new generation of Kentuckians. Lexington is home to our design team, legal team and contractor. Our logo was developed in Midway and reflects the spring beauty flowers found in the Holly Hill Inn lawn, the same floral landscape cherished by Honeywood. Our tables, bar and floor are being built by Lexington craftsmen with reclaimed Kentucky hardwood. A beautiful Big Ass fan will hang from our ceiling. Paintings and broadsides from local artists will hang on the walls.
Honeywood is planting a flag for our town, our Central Kentucky community, our Kentucky farmers, artists, distillers, brewers and chefs. When you come to The Summit to shop, Honeywood will be there to tell you where you are, that you’re right here in Lexington, in Central Kentucky. You’ll be able to taste Kentucky culture in Chef Josh Smouse’s beautiful and delicious dishes and see it all around you. All are welcome.