Wheat Penny chef and co-owner is ‘proud to say Dayton is my adopted home’

Chicago native Liz Valenti catered food for Oprah Winfrey’s studio — but now she’s Daytonian through and through

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Liz Valenti grew up in Chicago in a big extended Italian family.

“My mother, grandmother and aunts were incredible cooks who taught me to cook with love and integrity,” Valenti said.

Today, Valenti — our Dayton.com Daytonian of the Week this week — is executive chef and partner at Wheat Penny Oven and Bar. The trail she took to get here is filled with crazy twists and turns, and who better to describe them than Valenti herself?

“I went to college in Iowa, and moved out to San Francisco in my early twenties,” Valenti said. “I went to the California Culinary Academy there, and got to work in some pretty high-profile kitchens. When I moved back to Chicago, I ended up getting an accounting degree at Northwestern.”

“One day a friend, a caterer, asked for some bookkeeping help, and on an afternoon while I was in her office, her chef quit on the spot. I tied on an apron and started helping. I never went back to accounting.”

“ A few weeks later, we auditioned for the contract to provide a family meal five days a week to the 125 staff members at Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios. We got the job, and that became my primary focus. I remember calling (Elizabeth) Wiley, who had recently opened Meadowlark, and asking her, ‘Do you have a good recipe for tomato soup? Miss Winfrey wants me to make jerk chicken, didn’t you do that dish in Key West?’ It was scary but exhilarating, getting back into cooking full-time.”

“A few years later, when the Oprah show went off the air, Wiley called and said, ‘Move to Dayton!’ The rest is history.”

“When I got here, we thought we’d open a catering company, because of my previous experience. But the first job we did, the client must have emailed us 100 times. We realized catering involved a lot of hand-holding, and that we wanted to create an atmosphere of relaxation instead of stress. That meant inviting guests into our environment rather than going into theirs.”

“So we began dreaming of a restaurant, with Chicago and Italian influences. A year later, Wheat Penny Oven and Bar opened its doors.”

What’s a typical work day for you? 

My work day is anything but typical. I usually arrive at work by 4 a.m. I turn the music up loud and have the kitchen all to myself. I work on specials and other prep, and am done and out by 7 a.m., when the cooking staff arrives. We’ve only got one stove! Then it’s on to office work and other business-related tasks. Lately it’s been LOTS of calls to unemployment, helping employees navigate. I am on a first-name basis with the entire state government!

I love my job, because with my cooking and accounting background, I get to wear a lot of hats at Meadowlark Enterprises, where I have been a co-owner since 2016. I do HR, number-crunching, and data analysis, as well as systems organization, working with our staff, and nobody makes my mother’s marinara sauce better than I do. I usually go home around 5 p.m. after dinner service has begun, and I hate to admit it, but I am often fast asleep by 8 p.m.

What’s been your most recent professional challenge, and how did you push through the challenge? 

Just like everyone, my most recent professional challenge has been COVID-19. Laying off employees, having sales dip below 50 percent, watching the bank account bleed out, all while having a spouse who is higher-risk and worrying about her and about employees and customers getting sick — oh, the stories we’ll all tell years from now.

Pandemic or no pandemic, what are your favorite places to eat and/or drink in the Dayton area? 

Honestly, with my schedule, I don’t get out much. And lately, it has been mostly carryout. I love Ginger and Spice on Brown Street, and DiSalvo’s Deli in Kettering. Of course, I love the pasta from Grist Provisions, and not just because they are our next-door neighbors! I crave the Caldo de Pollo in the tiny restaurant in the back of La Michoacana Grocery. On the way home, I like to pick up miso soup, dumplings and sushi at Tokyo in Fairborn. As far as having a drink, I like my backyard.

What’s your guilty pleasure? 

Sitting on the couch in my PJs watching ESPN. Garlicky, sautéed spinach and tons of Pecorino Romano over toasted focaccia bread. Riding a motorcycle on the back roads of Greene County.

What inspires you about the Dayton area?

Dayton is a dynamic, diverse town that reminds me of Chicago. A mix of blue-collar, creative, academic, entrepreneurial, and technology people who are proud of what they do and where they live. The restaurant scene is collaborative, and committed to our shared culinary community. Daytonians step up to help each other and strive to make our city a better place to live and do business. Dayton is the best-kept secret in the Midwest. I am proud to say Dayton is my adopted home!

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