Between narrowing down her trove of recipes, testing each until foolproof, peppering in personal essays of a life spent with Kentucky food, and simultaneously running seven restaurants in and around Lexington, it took Ouita Michel six years to complete her first cookbook, Just a Few Miles South, which hit shelves last week.
“Just determining the table of contents alone took a year,” Michel says. But the labor paid off. The tome compiles more than 150 of Michel’s favorite recipes for classic, Southern staples such as fried chicken, biscuits, soup beans, and sausage gravy, becoming a one-stop-shop for the dishes that all Southern home cooks need to know. “We want it to reflect the simple food we’re making,” she says, “but without being too simple.”
Take for instance the pimento blue cheese, which mixes gorgonzola and roasted garlic into the traditional spread; the sweet potato quiche born of a bumper crop of Bluegrass-grown yams; or the bourbon trail chili, which makes good on its name by featuring whiskey and local hamburger meat. “We try to figure out ways to use all parts of an animal, and making this chili helps our local farming community with that,” Michel says. “We sell it at almost all our restaurants—I think we’ve made thousands of gallons at this point.”
For Michel and her co-authors, the Florida cook and food writer Sara Gibbs and Michel’s restaurant group’s special projects director Genie Graf, the most important part of the process was making the recipes viable for all skill levels. “I have the years of experience to be able to read a recipe and know right away if it won’t work—and that irritates me to no end,” Michel says. “So, Sara developed a protocol where we would make the recipes, then mail them to four testers who made them and sent them back with feedback. We made them again, then they made them again—every recipe was tested until we got it perfect.”
And because they’re surefire, Michel hopes people will return to them again and again. “I want it to be a generational book used for a really long time,” she says. For Michel, six years’ worth of work for generations of family meals feels like a pretty good trade-off.