Ann Heller, former Dayton Daily News food editor and critic, has died

Ann Heller, longtime Dayton Daily News and Journal Herald food editor and restaurant critic whose passion for food equaled her zest for life, died Sunday at Hospice of Dayton, her niece, Jenny Thomson, said.

Heller was 86.

Heller was born Feb. 1, 1936, in Middletown. She attended Northwestern University studying journalism. She started her professional career as a reporter and assistant city editor. Well-known for her long running “It’s Simple” column and decades of thorough restaurant reviews, Heller retired June 28, 2006. She served 29 years as food editor and 31 years as restaurant critic.

“Ann was an amazing food writer and journalist, and she helped countless Dayton-area residents cook and eat better,” said Jana Collier, Dayton Daily News publisher who served as Heller’s editor from 2001 to 2005. “Every day, she scoured supermarkets, pored over cookbooks and probed restaurant owners and chefs to find new and interesting food trends. She tested every recipe she ever published, making sure it would turn out perfectly for home cooks. And when it came to dining out, she always knew the best place to go and the best thing to order.”

Collier also noted Heller’s love of cooking was an extension of her desire to live life to the fullest.

“Ann taught me so much about cooking, about food, about journalism and about life,” Collier said. “She was as enthusiastic about life as she was about food. She was a joy to work with and an inspiring and caring friend. The Dayton food scene won’t be the same without her.”

The Dayton Daily News published a collection of Heller’s recipes in In 1992 titled “The Best of It’s Simple: Easy Recipes for Today’s Lifestyles and Tastes.” The cookbook was so popular she continued to receive feedback more than 20 years later. She was also the author of a 1980 cookbook and a series of stories entitled “Best Recipes of the Year” that were published in the Dayton Daily News and Journal Herald.

In 1994, Heller shared her Dayton-area picks for “Top 10 Restaurants.” In no particular order, her choices were: TW’s, L’auberge, Myung Sung, Pine Club, The Winds, China Cottage (Far Hills), Jay’s, The Savory, Kitty’s, and Steve Kao’s.

Following her retirement, Heller continued to test recipes and appease the tastes of family and friends in her home. In 2013, her passion for cooking and dining reached a new generation when the Dayton Daily News republished some of her most popular recipes on its digital site.

Mark Fisher, a former Dayton Daily News reporter who succeeded Heller as food and dining editor when she retired, said Heller was an iconic figure in the Dayton area’s restaurant scene.

“Ann had very high standards for her own work, and she held chefs and restaurant owners to high standards as well,” Fisher said. “If she wrote a complimentary review of a restaurant, readers could be absolutely assured the restaurant was doing things right.”

Heller especially loved writing about new finds in food, ingredients and recipes, Fisher said.

“My copy of Ann’s book is well-used, and I’ll be pulling it out this week to make her delicious Spanish Pork Loin, Crab Cakes and Blueberry Crumble,” Fisher said.

Alexis Larsen, who writes Dayton Eats, a weekly column about food and dining for the Dayton Daily News and is a former features editor at the newspaper, considered Heller a mentor and friend.

“There was great power in the pen she wielded as Ann told the stories of cooking and the hands that prepared the meals in local kitchens,” Larsen said. “Ann was so expressive and wrote so colorfully about food, it often felt as if you could taste it.”

Heller was also a world traveler, a superb tennis player, and enjoyed gardening at her home in the Oregon District where she also enjoyed cocktails on her porch. She was a staple of the Oregon District having lived there since she purchased her home in 1980. Family members recall Heller and her friends putting a lot of work into the house including digging dirt out of the second floor from the Great Dayton Flood of 1913.

Heller is survived by her sister Doris Elaine Thomson (New York) and nieces Jenny Thomson (Julie Lawton) (Spokane, WA) and Susan Tracy Thomson (Andy Roberts) (New York) and wonderful and loving friends including, but not limited to, Michael Barnes, Todd Crawford, Teri and Todd Carver (Dayton) and Kate Lawson (Michigan), and her beloved cat Charlie. She was preceded in death by her parents Roland S. and Florence T. Heller and brother-in-law Herbert S. Thomson.

Jenny Thomson fondly remembers being surprised by her aunt on her milestone birthday and taking yearly family vacations to Canada.

“She flew from Dayton to Spokane for my 50th birthday party in 2010 and jumped out of a big box in my dining room to announce her arrival,” Thomson said. “I have wonderful memories with Annie – always Annie to family – from yearly family fishing vacations in Canada complete with picnics in areas accessed by boat only, sharing tasty bites of food at restaurants and sitting on her porch having a cocktail.”

Tracy Thomson also has warm memories of family vacations bolstered by her aunt’s sense of humor.

“Annie’s infectious laugh and exuberant voice could carry,” Thomson said. “A favorite and often retold family memory was the time Annie and her sister, Dorry, were cane-pole fishing at a favorite Canada spot. Annie’s voice projected across the lake when she exclaimed, ‘THAT IS THE BIGGEST (sunfish) I’VE EVER SEEN!’ Fishermen from far and wide motored over to see, only to find the two sisters giggling in the rowboat over the sunfish. Lots of ingrained memories like that will live in our minds and keep us smiling. Jenny and I were so lucky to grow up in this close family who shared decades of vacations together, three generations together.”

Kate Lawson, a dear friend and fellow food editor, spoke highly of Heller’s journalistic integrity and love of her craft.

“As an esteemed journalist, Ann’s reputation was beyond reproach,” said Lawson, who was a longtime Detroit News food writer. “She took the job as restaurant critic as a serious endeavor and strove to be fair and uncompromising, sometimes to the dismay of the proprietor. But Ann felt that she owed it to her readers to offer an honest opinion as she crafted each and every review. She worked diligently to remain anonymous and never accepted a free meal or any token of appreciation from businesses. She was always fair and never harsh. If a restaurant failed to deliver either on food or service, she gave them the benefit of the doubt, often scrapping a review until she could revisit the venue. If we drove by a newer restaurant and the parking lot looked empty, she moved on to another day.

“In addition, as food editor, she selected timely topics on the latest culinary trends and ingredients and shared recipes that were often simple in execution but always dinner-party worthy,’' said Lawson. “She wrote the copy, tested the recipes, and styled the photos. Her philosophy was that if you could read a recipe, you could cook.”

Heller wrote about her craft in her last Dayton Daily News column.

“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,” Heller said, in her last recipe column for the Dayton Daily News prior to retiring. “But the recipes were the exclamation points at the end of the story. They told the continuing story about the way America cooks.”

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Hospice of Dayton, Montgomery County Historical Society, Oregon Historic District Society, or the Humane Society. A celebration of Heller’s life will be planned, according to the family.

About the Author