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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Meadowlark chef looks forward to next course

Focaccia with oregano made from 'grandma' sourdough starter.
Renee Wilde
/
WYSO
Focaccia with oregano made from 'grandma' sourdough starter.

Chef Elizabeth Wiley, CEO of Meadowlark Restaurant and co-owner of Wheat Penny Oven and Bar in Dayton, first started cooking for her younger siblings growing up in Kansas. When she took a job as a teenager working in her Aunt and Uncle’s restaurant that cemented her love for the culinary arts that sent her on a journey across the country to pursue her passion.

Elizabeth remembers the first time she tasted blue cheese. It was during college in Iowa, where Wiley and her friends would reserve private dining rooms to hold dinner parties for fellow classmates.

“We invited a teacher - our theater professor - and she unwrapped this very thick wedge of blue cheese,” Wiley recalled sitting in her kitchen at her home outside of Yellow Springs. “I had only seen blue cheese as blue cheese salad dressing, I had never actually seen blue cheese - and especially a wedge of blue cheese. I cut off a little bit and tasted it, and it just blew my mind.”

Wiley came to Yellow Springs after college and ended up working at the Winds Cafe. It was 1980 and Wiley was visiting town with a friend.

“We went in there on the last day of our visit here and they said you wanna see the kitchen, and I said sure,” she told me over a plate of cheese and sliced apples. “So we went in the kitchen and there was a woman in a chef coat. I had never seen a woman in a chef coat before, and I was just like, I wanna work here. And so I asked for a job and they hired me about a month later, and I started as a dish washer and and just kind of offered to help and worked my way up.”

Wiley eventually became a partner in The Winds, before leaving to start her own restaurants in Dayton and surrounding area - first with Meadowlark and then creating Wheat Penny Oven and Bar, with her former Grinnell College classmate, Elizabeth Valenti, who Wiley calls Liz.

Over the past four decades Chef Wiley has become a beloved figure in Dayton and the surrounding area. Sitting around the table in Wiley’s home kitchen, talk turns to the sourdough making craze that swept the country during the pandemic shutdown in 2020. When I ask the chef if she bake’s, her response was an emphatic, “No! No, I don't bake. Flour intimates the hell out of me.”

 Collection of knives displayed in Chef Elizabeth Wiley's home kitchen.
Renee Wilde
/
WYSO
Collection of knives displayed in Chef Elizabeth Wiley's home kitchen.

Wiley then launched into a story about when her business partner Valenti. You know when we started Wheat Penny, Liz went to Chicago, and she went to this bakery where her dad had taken her when she was a little girl. It was in the older, Italian part of Chicago, and her dad had gone there when he was a little kid and he was born in 1913. And so she got this little bit of their starter, which they call grandma.”

“That (starter) is still going," she said. "They have to feed it every day (at the restaurant). When we would close for a week - which we have done a couple times here and there - she would take it home and feed it during that. And so there is a little bit of that bakery in every single pizza and focaccia we make.”

Wiley just happens to have a piece of focaccia from the Wheat Penny restaurant that Liz had brought over earlier and offered to let me taste it. As she unwrapped a hunk of the Italian bread from the cellophane the smell of oregano filled the air.

“Do you know how focaccia was invented?” she asked, slicing off two pieces which she puts on a plate and places into the oven to warm up. “It was a way to use old pizza dough that was too flabby and over-proofed.”

While we waited for the Italian bread to warm up, the talk turned to the future. Owning a restaurant is not not a 9 - 5 job. The hours are long, vacations are rare, and Wiley is ready to step away from the business to spend more time with family and friends, and try new things.

Recently, she attended a local writing workshop in Yellow Springs.

“One of the writers, the one who I liked the best, is a romance novel writer. And not only that she’s in a subgenre of romance called medical romance,” Wiley said. “She was like, 'Wiley, you could write a lesbian culinary novel, you know.' And I’m like, 'Well hot diggity dog maybe I will.' ”

The oven timer goes off, and as Wiley brings the bread to the table she adds, “But, I’m not saying I’m going to write a romance novel. If I had more time I’d like to write something. I don’t know if I’d have anything to say, but I might.”

Whatever the next course of life serves up for Wiley, you can bet it will be just as unique as the chef herself.

Renee Wilde was part of the 2013 Community Voices class, allowing her to combine a passion for storytelling and love of public radio. She started out as a volunteer at the radio station, creating the weekly WYSO Community Calendar and co-producing Women’s Voices from the Dayton Correctional Institution - winner of the 2017 PRINDI award for best long-form documentary. She also had the top two highest ranked stories on the WYSO website in one year with Why So Curious features. Renee produced WYSO’s series County Lines which takes listeners down back roads and into small towns throughout southwestern Ohio, and created Agraria’s Grounded Hope podcast exploring the past, present and future of agriculture in Ohio through a regenerative lens. Her stories have been featured on NPR, Harvest Public Media and Indiana Public Radio.