Chef Elizabeth Wiley discusses
her history of cooking


Chef Elizabeth Wiley enjoys nothing more than creating new and unique epicurean treats

By Paula Johnson

Chef Elizabeth Wiley is a well-known quantity in Dayton. At the helm of Meadowlark and Wheat Penney with Chef Liz Valenti, and recently Sagecraft catering with Jenn DiSanto, she’s one of the most respected chefs in town. Now, she is out of town as well with her fellowship award with the James Beard Foundation. A little background on the esteemed James Beard: In 1955, he established The James Beard Cooking School, which emphasized good food honestly prepared with American ingredients. His was the first cooking show on TV. In 1986, the James Beard Foundation was established in Beard’s honor to provide scholarships to aspiring food professionals and champion the American culinary tradition that Beard helped create. This past September, Chef Wiley was the recipient of a brand new scholarship awarded by the prestigious Beard Foundation. I sat down with Wiley – as all know her –  to ask her about the experience and about other food topics as well.

PJ: First let’s talk about your background. What was food like for you as a child?

CW: It wasn’t anything special. My mom worked and we ate a lot of convenience food like Hamburger Helper – it was the 70s you know. I was the oldest and I was responsible for making dinner at least once a week. Mom said I could make whatever I wanted, that she would buy the groceries, so that’s what got me started looking at cookbooks. They were just the basics like “Better Homes And Gardens” but it’s what got me started.

PJ: When did you first work in a restaurant?

CW: My dad’s sister and her husband had a little restaurant in Kansas where we lived and I went to work for them. They had this old army chef who was a really good cook. I would kill to have his cabbage soup recipe. He made everything from scratch. It’s when I got hooked. I loved making the food to order – it’s kind of like working back stage, you know? I always enjoyed working backstage for theater productions in high school and it’s the same reason I liked cooking in the restaurant behind the scenes. When I went to college I always worked in restaurants – I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

PJ: What did you major in?

CW: English. Did you ever read my menus? They’re so verbose! (Laughing)

PJ: Ah that’s why your menu descriptions are so literate! I always love reading your menus. I appreciate how fresh, informative, and not precious or pompous what you write is.

PJ: Did you go right to work after college?

CW: As soon as I could afford it, I took a Greyhound bus to San Francisco and got a job. It was a great time to be starting out there in 1980. So much was happening; the food scene was exploding there. And Liz (Valenti, her current business partner) was with me. We were friends all through college. She was on fire to be a cook and so was I!

PJ: This is a more general question about food and how it’s always changing and evolving. What is your least favorite food trend? And your most?

CW: My most? I am really happy about seeing more vegetables! Vegetable-centric dining is so exciting. What I hate? You know how you said the word precious? If I hear the phrase farm to table one more time I’m going to scream. I know people need to know that but it just is done to death. Also I hated foam, and fortunately no one is doing that anymore.

PJ: Can you comment on the food scene here in Dayton?

CW: I definitely feel like good things are happening here but I also feel like people look right past us-like we’re in the culinary Bermuda Triangle or something! Indianapolis is a city that has a lot going on – I aspire for Dayton to be like Indianapolis.

PJ: Let’s get to the James Beard fellowship program you attended. It was for women only, and you said that over one hundred chefs nationwide applied and you were one of twenty chosen.

CW: Yes, the parameters were very specific – you had to be female, own one restaurant but no more than two, and you had to have an idea for growing your business. I just love breakfast and lunch and I was looking at an idea around that.

PJ: Where was it, and who was involved in the instruction?

CW: It was in Boston at the Executive Training Center at Babson College. Surprisingly, while James Beard Foundation staffs were there, Babson faculty mostly taught the courses. It was totally business focused – marketing, sales, managing people, data analytics, legal contracts, real estate, and employment law – it was incredibly academic. We began with a brief two-minute presentation of our expansion idea. Then at the close of the week, we presented a specific step-by-step business model on the business expansion idea including everything we learned. It had to contain everything. It was like a presentation that you’d give to a bank or potential investors.

PJ: How did it turn out? What was the takeaway for you?

CW: It was validating for me in a way – I learned that I was intuitively doing a lot of things right. It was also enlightening – I learned that the numbers just wouldn’t bear out what I originally wanted to do. Seven days a week three meals a day is just too much and requires too many people. So I learned from this intensive experience I would have to adjust what I’m thinking for my next step.

Chef Wiley declined to get too specific about what that step is going to be, but like me, all of Dayton will be anxiously waiting to see (and to taste) what that means.

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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