A beloved Oregon District chef is receiving high praise for more than her culinary skills.
Chef Elizabeth Valenti, executive chef and partner at Wheat Penny Oven and Bar, was one of 12 Ohio Restaurant Association’s Industry Award Winners for 2021. Valenti was honored with the “Nourishing the Community Award” in a virtual award ceremony held Wednesday, July 14.
The Industry Awards Celebration spotlights top leaders and professionals of Ohio’s restaurant, foodservice and hospitality industry. According to the ORA, the awards honor their dedication, excellence and service to their peers, communities and beyond.
“It’s an honor to celebrate our industry, especially after a challenging 16 months due to the pandemic,” said John Barker, president and CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association. “Restaurateurs in Ohio have gone above and beyond in terms of health, safety and excellence in the food service industry to ensure the Ohio Restaurant Promise for employees and guests.
The Nourishing the Community Award “recognizes an individual or organization for their outstanding contributions through community service or charitable involvement.”
Valenti was nominated by Daytonian Lisa Grigsby, owner of local nonprofit, Planned2Give, and president of Dayton Dining.
“Liz has always been someone who gives back to the community, but her video messages during the pandemic were so honest and heartwarming and transparent,” Grigsby said. “As a business owner who was struggling, having to lay off staff, unsure of what the future would be, her messages to the community meant so much and gave us hope.”
Though Valenti stresses the credit is spread evenly throughout Dayton’s food community, Valenti helped turn the COVID-19 pandemic into an opportunity for growth for area restaurants.
“The owners sought each other out, we became allies, and this notion of collaboration grew exponentially through the pandemic,” Valenti said. “It was not separate restaurants. We were just a group of restaurant owners and managers that really needed to share our experiences. To talk about what we were facing, to figure out what the best practices were. It wasn’t a matter of one of us. It was all of us together as a group.”
In the early onset of the pandemic, Valenti started recording and posting videos to Wheat Penny’s Facebook page with encouraging messages for the Dayton community as a whole. In particular, she offered updates on how Wheat Penny was navigating the ever-changing pandemic restrictions and pointers for other restaurant owners.
Credit: Wheat Penny
Credit: Wheat Penny
The almost weekly videos received thousands of views. Valenti kept Wheat Penny’s voice and energy positive and hopeful throughout some of the toughest months restaurants and small businesses have ever experienced.
“If I had to choose one day out of the whole last two years of my life that were the most dynamic, it would have been the day the Black Lives Matter March happened right in front of Wheat Penny,” she said. “That day was the turning point for us. I’m in tears because of that. I was struck by just the common struggle.”
The day the protest reached an impasse in front of Wheat Penny, Valenti said she felt the respect for the Dayton Police Department because of how “they towed the line” and for checking-in with her and her team.
“I closed the restaurant that day, and in that moment, I realized the greater sense of community of Dayton and the Oregon District mattered much more than the people I was going to be serving that night at dinner,” she said.
Grigsby said Valenti was the obvious choice when she heard the call for ORA nominations.
“When I got the call for nominations, she was the very first person I thought of and she truly deserves this recognition,” Grigsby said.
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