How Holly Hill Inn Makes Us Happy
There's a certain rhythm when people talk about meals they have recently eaten at Holly Hill Inn in Midway, Kentucky. In the nearly 10 years since Ouita and Chris Michel became the Inn's chef and host, respectively, it goes without saying -- at first -- that the food will be superb, the tastes memorable, even better than one expected. Often, then, the talk begins with the other surprise -- the warmth, care, and outright kindness with which the Inn's staff treat each diner.
Somehow, Holly Hill Inn staff wrap comfort and delight around patrons while serving them exquisite food, most of it Kentucky-based, as in this first course from the current dinner menu:
Baby Corn Custard with Shaved Benton's Kentucky ProsciuttoNat's late summer sweet corn bound with cream and egg and bruléed, with shaved country ham and roasted cherry tomato salad
This post, though, is not about Holly Hill Inn's justly famous, celebrated food or its illustrious, beloved chef Ouita Michel. It is about that "somehow," the mysterious alchemy behind the warm welcome that makes the fantastic food even more delicious. I have suspected for some time that Donna Hecker, Guest Relations Manager, may be one source of the sweet climate we love at Holly Hill. That's Donna, above, at the Inn's front steps.
Donna has a way, on the rare happy times I call to make a reservation, of making me feel that Holly Hill Inn staff members have just been waiting to see me, and are delighted I'll be coming to the restaurant. I'm quite sure everyone who calls in or gets a call back to confirm a reservation gets this same warm treatment. Ladies and gentlemen, that sense of being wanted and welcomed constitutes quite an aperitif!
Once a happy patron shows up in the Inn's lovely front hall, greetings also have a special warmth, and Donna is often at the heart of them. Donna and other Inn staff respond to the general "We're here!" the diners are experiencing with smiles, hellos, and taking of coats, all carried out with a demeanor that continues the theme from the reservation phone conversation: "It's so good to have you here."
I have just read a book, Melanie Rehak's Eatig for Beginners, described a bit more in this recent post, in which a great deal of the narrative unfolds in a Brooklyn restaurant kitchen that I imagine may be similar to Holly Hill's. Rehak cooked for no pay for about a year at applewood, an upscale neighborhood restaurant near her house, in order to learn about food and cooking from the restaurant's owners -- who, like Ouita and Chris Michel, met at the Culinary Institute of America and hold deep commitments to local producers and sustainable production methods.
In contrast to many tales of gaining skill in a fast-paced, high-end kitchen -- most of which feature significant blood, burns, shouting, swearing, cuts, sweat, and tears -- Rehak describes the applewood kitchen climate as happy, sunny, collaborative and encouraging enough to attract chefs willing to take a pay cut in order to work there. Even so, even in the best of conditions, producing meals in the applewood kitchen required intense physical effort, mental focus, and stamina.
So even though one knows that Holly Hill's servers undoubtedly move back and forth between the softly lit dining spaces and some measured chaos in a busy kitchen, the servers maintain a calm that amounts to a steady implicit message to diners: "All is well. People are back in the kitchen putting together wonderful things just for you. And if any little thing will increase your pleasure and comfort, we will provide that -- no question"
Donna Hecker may not have responsibilities for the training and actions of the wait staff at Holly Hill Inn. I don't know. I am sure, in any case, that all staff members carry out a tone of welcome set by the utterly hospitable Ouita and Christopher Michel. But I just have a little suspicion that, if nothing else, somehow Donna's ease and friendliness create an aura in which it is easier for other staff to provide superior service as well.
Donna lives in Frankfort, Kentucky, where she grew up. She has worked at Holly Hill Inn for seven years. I asked,
"Do you ever get tired?"
"I mean, do you get tired of being nice to people? Do you get hosting fatigue?"
"Sure. Of course."
"What's the antidote?"
Perhaps something selected from the Inn's acclaimed wine list....
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The world is coming to visit central Kentucky this year for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. To help our visitors know more about Kentucky's food and food ways, Savoring Kentucky is rolling out 116 Savory Kentucky Bites, one for each of the 100 days before WEG begins, and 16 for the days during WEG, September 25 - October 10. Today's Savory Bite is number 93.