It was an immediate sensation with a line snaking out the door regularly with hungry diners looking to enjoy delicious fresh food that delivered exceptional flavor. Wiley’s time working at the Winds Cafe in Yellow Springs had clearly influenced her and Meadowlark quickly grew from a new restaurant on the scene to a dining institution. Seven years after opening she moved Meadowlark to its current home on Far Hills Ave. and went on to open Wheat Penny Oven & Bar on Wayne Ave. in 2013.
Having enjoyed hundreds of her meals over the years, you could taste that there was real joy in crafting and creating dishes for others. I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Wiley since her retirement from her restaurants to hear her story. She has been as busy as ever working to support local restaurants and chefs behind the scenes as a cheerleader and mentor since her retirement party earlier this year.
“Yes, I guess I am calling it retirement. I have an ambiguous relationship with it, though. I don’t have much of a plan right now, and I get kind of grumpy because all anyone ever asks me is ‘Hey! How is retirement?’ I think it can be tough for anyone, but it is hard peeling myself away from the restaurant business and working in it every day,” said Wiley. “I am frustrated that Dayton gets no attention whatsoever — even in our own state. My mission now that I’m retired is to do everything I can to help elevate the Dayton restaurant scene.”
A culinary spark
She shared the her passion for cooking was sparked during the summer of 1975 after she graduated from high school when her aunt and uncle opened a restaurant called Jordan’s Corner in Olathe, Kansas. She went to Grinnell College in Iowa and not long after graduation visited Yellow Springs. Her last night in town, she found herself at The Winds Café.
“When they brought me in to see the kitchen during dinner service, I couldn’t believe my eyes — a bunch of women cooking, in chef coats! I had never seen a woman in a chef coat before. I immediately asked if I could work there. Skeptically, they said yes. I went back to Iowa, packed up all my stuff and moved to Ohio,” said Wiley. “After a couple years, I hopped a Greyhound bus for San Francisco, where my culinary education ramped up. It was the early ‘80s, and ‘California Cuisine’ was sparking a lot of excitement. I remember going over to Berkeley on my day off to see what this Chez Panisse place was all about. I had my first raw oyster and my first glass of Provence Rose in the upstairs café that afternoon. It changed my life, and I still have the oyster shell.”
She worked in restaurants in California, Chicago, Florida and Ohio and in 1994 received a call while she was working for chef Rick Bayless that would forever change the course of her career and of dining in our region. The call was to return to Ohio and be a partner at the Winds.
“A dream come true, I moved back to Yellow Springs to finally settle down. There was a core group of women in the kitchen there, and we were all about the same age, all self-taught and I realize now, all very talented,” said Wiley. “We constantly read and worked on our cooking, at work and at home. We’d use each other as guinea pigs. Oh, the dinner parties! Any vacation time was devoted to going to a big city in the U.S. or Europe and going to restaurants, tasting wines and making notes. Oh, the notebooks! During the 10 years I was a partner at The Winds, I learned so much. I worked the front of the house, learning how to wait tables and run a dining room. I learned hard lessons as a manager about what works and doesn’t work when approaching financial problems, staffing problems, theft, substance abuse, anger, exhaustion. I also learned to appreciate the magic of a smooth shift, the rewards of a serious devotion to professional cooking, and the joy of practicing true hospitality.”
It set the stage for her to venture out and open Meadowlark in 2004.
Meadowlark was a destination dining experience where everything from the main dishes to the accompaniments like ketchup were made from scratch and delivered great satisfaction. The fried green tomatoes, pecan-dredged trout, shrimp and grits, portobello patty melt and delicious turkey thighs were just some of the fantastic dishes that could be savored and enjoyed in a relaxed atmosphere.
“My cooking is much more domestic than cheffy. I am most drawn to dishes derived from home-cooking, done very very well. I’ve hardly ever even eaten in a true fancy restaurant. I like a big-girl portion of vegetables as well as a starch on the plate, versus a too-big piece of protein perched on top of nothing but a few coins of fingerling potato. Fancy-plated dishes are beautiful, but when you bring dinner out and the first bite is taken and everyone at the table’s eyebrows shoot up, that’s when you’ve truly done your job,” said Wiley. “When something you cook tastes amazing, there is only one better joy — seeing the looks on the faces of others you’ve cooked it for.”
When celebrity Chef Lydia Bastianich ate at Meadowlark in 2014 she shared with Wiley that she and the kitchen crew were culinary stars. Bastiancich asked to go back into the kitchen and congratulate them and take a photo with them.
Wiley talks about cooking with intense passion. Listening to her talk about any subject associated with food is a delight with her expressions of joy, respect and devotion for good food.
“As far as ingredients, I go through periods of obsession. For a while it was the combination of citrus and olives. One obsession that has never gone away is fennel seeds. My current obsession is ground meat. Ground meat emanates flavor like nothing else. With just the right grind, the right level of moisture, the right spicing, and the right additions, you have before you something that is utterly every day, but utterly ethereal,” said Wiley. “I loved cooking brunch. That was the last line position I regularly worked. I gave it up at 56. I love cooking eggs, making beautiful omelets with no brown on the outside whatsoever, I love making sausage gravy, making sure all 160 slices of thick-cut Nueske’s applewood-smoked bacon was done perfectly, scrambling eggs correctly is an art, making hashbrowns from scratch, even making toast is a subtle, precision craft. And finished plates better not sit in the window because breakfast dishes can go downhill fast. I could go on and on.”
Wiley sold Wheat Penny and Meadowlark in 2022 to her beloved business partners, Chefs Dave Rawson and Liz Valenti.
“Liz is my best friend from college, and back then we were already on fire for cooking. She has a degree from the California Culinary Academy, and worked with some amazing chefs in the Bay Area. She got an accounting degree at Northwestern later, and was working as an accountant in Chicago when the chef at one of her clients, a big catering firm in Chicago, abruptly walked out. She happened to be in the office there, and got up from the desk and went to help the owner in the kitchen. She never went back to accounting.”
Valenti landed a contract with Harpo Studios where she catered meals for 125 employees of the Oprah Winfrey Show daily. When the show ended, Wiley suggested Valenti move to Dayton.
“She, her wife Ann, and their teenager moved here in 2011, just a few months before we moved Meadowlark to its present location. We took our first catering job, but realized for several reasons that what we really wanted to do was open another restaurant. Liz is from a big Italian Chicago family of cooks, which suggested a concept, and that’s how Wheat Penny was born, opening in August of 2013.”
Credit: Lisa Powell/Staff Photographer
Credit: Lisa Powell/Staff Photographer
“Dave and I worked together at The Winds, and he came on board as kitchen manager at Little Meadowlark in early 2006, and has been here ever since. He is solid, feet-on-the-ground, creative and hard-working, a good communicator and fantastic cook who started his career as a baker at Meijer, and studied culinary at Sinclair. To watch him make risotto, or ratatouille is poetic. His wife Robin, another Winds alumna, has been cooking at Meadowlark since opening day in September, 2004. I could not have done any of it without them.”
Wiley’s last official day at the restaurants was December 31, 2022. She shares that she and Liz now only talk once a day on the phone instead of 10 times a day.
In March friends and fans of Wiley gathered for a party in Yellow Springs to celebrate her retirement. There were many toasts and well wishes and speeches were made in her honor. Friend Judy Kintner shared, “Wiley has always had the rare ability to know what matters and what people need, and she keeps the people who matter to her — which honestly seems to be anyone she’s ever met — fed in the Webster’s definition of that word: to furnish something essential to the development, sustenance, maintenance, or operation of.”
She ended with a beautiful haiku:
Wiley from Kansas
Dreams food soul tasted
Understands what hunger craves
Has fed us all joy
Wiley is an unsung hero of Dayton’s culinary scene. To this humble, fantastically creative Kansas City girl who has practiced her unique brand of cooking for four decades we are so grateful and better for having had you making such wonderful food for us, for helping pave the way for other female chefs, for cheerleading on our community and for feeding us joy time and time again. We were blessed beyond words to have you cooking for us as long as we did.
DAYTON EATS runs Sundays in the Life & Arts section of the Dayton Daily News and features the latest on menu updates, special dinners and events, new chefs, interesting new dishes, and food adventures. Contact Contributing Writer Alexis Larsen at firstname.lastname@example.org.