Owner of the Meadowlark Restaurant in Kettering and Wheat Penny Oven and Bar in Dayton, Chef Elizabeth Wiley, has been a player in the area’s restaurant scene on-and-off for almost 40 years. Over that time, she’s made more of a name for herself nationally, and watched other local female chefs climb the ladder alongside her.
But for many, including Wiley, being a woman has made that ladder hard to climb. In September she became a James Beard Foundation fellow in its Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership program. Community Voices producer George Drake, Jr. explored her story and the trend of female chefs around the city.
Following a busy lunch rush and a mid-afternoon meeting at the Meadowlark Restaurant, Chef Wiley confirms with members of her staff that she’s around if they need clarification on anything.
But, getting to where she is now came with its challenges. She moved to Dayton in 1980 to work for the Winds Cafe. Following that, some of her first experiences in commercial kitchens were as a line cook elsewhere in the country -- where she was usually the only white person, as well as the only woman. And her fellow cooks made it known to her that they didn’t think she was on their level.
“I would be filleting fish, and one of the guys, you know, one of the Hispanic guys that I worked with would come up to me and say, ‘Have you ever worked in a kitchen before?’ And, you know, I’m filleting fish and he’s chopping celery or something."
And it didn’t end there. Sometimes they’d take a pan, stick it under the broiler for a minute, then put it on the floor.
“And then, you know, there’s a pan on the floor. You reach down and pick it up, you burn your hand, everybody laughs. You know, just the, you know, that kind of thing.”
She says she was pranked like that not because she was new, or because she was white, "It was because I was a woman.”
She continued on, developing her cooking skills, and taking ownership of her work -- but she says that even after moving to San Francisco, she still lacked the confidence to go to the better restaurants in the area and apply.
“But I used to take a bus across town and look into restaurant windows and look at the menus they had posted out on the sidewalk and just be like, ‘wow,’ and just try to learn from that.”
Eventually she bought a van and started her own knife sharpening business -- mainly so she’d have a way to get into those restaurants.
“And I would be able to go in the kitchen because I was the knife sharpener, and I would be able to look around and try to see how they were doing things. I should’ve just applied!”
After bouncing around between a few cities and restaurants, she came back to Dayton in 1994.
She enlisted the help of former co-workers from the Winds Cafe to help at Meadowlark and has kept a fairly balanced kitchen with both men and women, but it hasn’t always been an even split. While sometimes there have been more of one than the other -- currently it’s more men -- she says a mix is key.
Since she came back to Dayton, she’s been witness to the changing face of the city’s restaurant scene.
She’s watched it become more female-driven.
One of the standouts was a nationally-respected Dayton chef who had also come back home.
“There was Anne Kearney, who grew up here, moved away to New Orleans, became a chef, became nationally-known, became a Food & Wine Magazine up-and-coming new chef, and became a James Beard Foundation nominee -- she came back to Dayton and opened up a restaurant.”
Over the years, women like Kearney, Dana Downs of Roost, Jenn DiSanto of Fresco, and others, along with Chef Wiley have all helped form a pedestal that collectively lifts up the women of Dayton’s restaurant industry. And, Wiley’s business partner, Liz Valenti, says that pedestal relies on a sense of community.
“The women here are a close-knit group. We support each other, we’re not rivals, we may be competitive with each other -- playfully and personally -- but we see each other as assets.”
Valenti feels comfortable approaching any of the chefs in town for their input on a recipe or thoughts about a prospective employee, and doesn’t need to worry about getting her ideas stolen, or a bad recommendation.
“There’s nothing but camaraderie and support within this community. I’ve never experienced anything like this. It’s truly amazing.”
Wiley also sees that sense of community, but says at the end of the day, while they all encourage each other as well as mentor younger chefs -- it all comes down to one thing.
“Really it was just determined women kind of doing their own thing on their own. And then, after that, we all became friends and we’re all buddies.”
As she puts it, “eating isn’t going to go digital,” so there has to be brick and mortar restaurants in the future, which means people of a younger generation who aspire to be chefs have nothing to worry about.
“And so, I think, people in their twenties, particularly women have the whole world to look forward to. And food’s only going to get better -- it already has gotten so much better since I was a little kid, you know? No more bologna sandwiches for me," says Chef Elizabeth Wiley, owner of Meadowlark Restaurant and Wheat Penny Oven and Bar.
Culture Couch is our occasional series on the arts, made possible by a generous grant from the Ohio Arts Council.