LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 29, 2023) — It’s not very often that a nationally decorated intercollegiate debate record translates to a career as an award-winning chef. However, Ouita Michel, a 1987 political science graduate, credits University of Kentucky Intercollegiate Debate for inspiring many of the decisions that led her to the culinary arts.
Michel was a member of UK Intercollegiate Debate, housed in the College of Communication and Information, from 1982-1986 before taking on a mentoring role during her final semester. Michel took home the outstanding first-year award in 1983 and the distinguished student speaker award in 1984. Michel ended her debate career by winning the prestigious title of 1986 National Debate Tournament champion alongside her debate partner David Brownell.
“It was a very special moment, and it’s definitely been a moment I’ve relived in my life over and over again with a lot of happiness and a lot of joy,” Michel said. “Not everyone can say they won the last debate they were ever in.”
Michel said that while these competitions and accolades brought her joy to reflect on, many of the most influential moments from her time at UK happened in her day-to-day life as a debater.
One of the most fundamental elements of debate is traveling to competitions, something that Michel credited with opening her eyes to a breadth of cuisines and flavors that she had never experienced.
"We would travel to Northwestern University for tournaments a couple times during the year, and we were always on a very tight budget. Luckily, we could get a good deal on a delicious meal in Greektown,” Michel said. “We gradually expanded to exploring other restaurants, like the first Korean restaurant I ever ate at. We turned our meal allowance into a really fun experience.”
Michel continued exploring her love of food outside of the school year. During the summers, Michel often coached younger debaters at debate camps at colleges like Dartmouth and the University of Michigan. Michel and her fellow camp staff would use their free time to organize wine tastings and cook together.
This love of cooking with and for others carried over to Michel’s life back in Lexington. Since many of the debaters lived in the same apartment complex, they decided to put together a debate dinner club where the teammates cooked for one another.
“It was through this dinner club that I became more interested in cooking,” Michel said. “It had a lot to do with getting praise from my friends. They’d say things like ‘Oh, you’re such a great cook. I could eat anything that you make.’ That kind of thing made me feel really encouraged.”
Based on her growing interest in cooking and her approaching graduation, Michel decided to take a restaurant job to explore the possibility of a future career in the kitchen. Michel found the restaurant business mimicked the fast-paced, competitive debate environment that she loved.
"I just fell in love with the pace and action of the kitchen,” Michel said. “Debate has this rapid-fire pace to it and so does professional cooking. I think that had a lot to do with my love for it.”
Michel pointed out that debate has influenced her personal life as well, through the creation of lifelong friendships and an ever-present, supportive community that has been there for her over the last 40 years.
One example of this lifelong support system came when Michel and her restaurants faced financial struggles during the COVID-19 shutdown. Michel said her debate friends from around the country rallied enough money to keep Michel, her business and her employees afloat until they received government assistance.
“It was a really moving experience, a humbling experience, and one that I'll be eternally grateful for,” Michel said. “That's the kind of friendships that you can form by participating in debate.”
One thing that is not up for debate is the role that UK Intercollegiate Debate has played in shaping Michel’s and countless other debaters’ lives in the program’s nearly 70-year history. To learn more about UK Intercollegiate Debate, visit www.kentuckydebate.com. To learn more about Ouita Michel and her company Holly Hill, visit www.hollyhillandco.com/.
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