DAYTON EATS: Ann Heller remembered for legacy chronicling local restaurants and food



During her tenure at the Dayton Daily News, Ann Heller helped change the way Dayton saw and talked about food. I saw firsthand her influence with local restaurants and chefs. Many established dining institutions will still credit her to this day for helping put them on the map.

I had the pleasure of working as Ann’s editor for two years in my 20s until she retired. I was young and had a lot to learn. She knew it. I knew it.

I was hungry for knowledge and, fortunately for me, Ann, who died Sunday, was willing to teach.

She was generous with her time and expertise and we challenged each other along the way as we grew together in trust and respect. She quickly became a mentor, a friend, a confidant and someone who I continue to this day to hold in the highest regard.

There was great power in the pen Ann wielded as she told the stories of cooking and the hands that prepared the meals being enjoyed in local kitchens. Ann was incredibly expressive and wrote so colorfully about food it often felt as if you could taste the dishes being written about in print.

Explore5 of Ann Heller's favorite recipes

Ann Heller became the first restaurant critic for The Journal Herald in 1975.

In 1986 when the Journal was merged with the Dayton Daily News to become a morning newspaper, Ann was named restaurant critic and food editor, a position she held until her retirement in late summer of 2006, when she wrapped up a beautiful 29 years celebrating her passion for food and dining.

She wrote shortly before retiring, “The best part of writing about food has always been the people and their passions, from the sausage maker and the confectioner to the farmer, the chef and the dedicated cook. But the recipes were the exclamation points at the end of the story. They told the continuing story about the way America cooks. It was an exciting time to chronicle the country’s emerging cuisine.”

There is no doubt that the region’s readers were lucky to have her. Ann had a keen eye, sharp spidey senses, incredible taste and a poetic way with words that coaxed you into whatever review or story she was telling. When the story wrapped, the only way to curb the hunger it left readers with was another great food story — especially if it was one written by Ann.

As Ann shared with readers, food changed significantly during the three decades she covered it. Basil was an exotic herb in the 70′s and today we can’t imagine a fresh Italian meal without it. Sun-dried tomatoes and chipotle chilies weren’t used by home chefs, let alone restaurants, and bulgur was only available if you could find a health food store that happened to carry it. Edamame, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found.

As she wrote so colorfully about food, the food became more and more colorful on plates being served, infused with ethnic flavors and ingredients. As this sea change took place, Ann let her readers know first-hand what was trending in the world of dining. She established a loyal, dedicated following, because Ann was always there to tell them first.

There was no one more knowledgeable about food locally during the time her words commanded the pages of the Dayton Daily News. Even after retirement, Ann lived for a good meal and would continue to write and critique what she was eating.

As I took over writing much of the food content over the years, she gave me tips, notes, suggestions and critiques. All were welcome and all were spot on.

Ann was a tremendous home cook who prepared some of the most incredible meals in her wonderful Oregon District home that I could have ever imagined. I always felt honored to be invited to the table.

She was an inspiration to me and I know that I am not alone. Ann was a beloved institution in the world of local dining with a talent for reporting and a gift for deep, meaningful storytelling.

I am better because of her. Her loss is deeply felt, but it’s comforting to know that there are many like me who will carry her with them.

That sparkle in her eye, that quick wit, that tell-it-like-it-is communication style and that unending celebration of flavor and food is something I will always hold dear. It’s precious treasure I will carry with me as a reminder of a dear friend and a life well lived.

Dayton Eats looks at the regional food stories and restaurant news that make mouths water. Menu updates, special dinners and events, new chefs, interesting new dishes and food adventures. Do you know of new exciting format changes, specials, happy hours, restaurant updates or any other tasty news you think is worth a closer look at?

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