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Bitch at Us: Vinoteca’s Chef Lonnie Zoeller

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We’re so excited for this November’s Signature Chefs Auction, which benefits the March of Dimes. It’s one of D.C.’s most fabulous events and it highlights the city’s culinary masters. The gala brings together food-lovers for an evening of wine, cocktails, and amazing food. Make sure you get tickets to the event early; it always sells out.

In anticipation, we chatted with Chef Lonnie Zeller, the man behind the creativity in the kitchen at Vinoteca. I’m a huge wino, so Vinoteca is one of my hands-down favorite spots. I love playing bocce ball on the back patio while taking advantage of the killer happy hour deal ($5 a glass of 25 of their wines from 4-7 p.m. all week).  I never get sick of their Spanish influenced small plates, as tapas are mi favorito. Meanwhile, Becca loved Vinoteca’s brunch so much that she went twice.

We were excited to hear from Chef Lonnie about his thoughts on brunch, wine, and new babies!

When did you come on board at Vinoteca? What is your culinary background?

I came to Vinoteca about four years ago, about a year after they had opened. I grew up working in my stepfather’s restaurant, and my mother always kept a garden in the summer, so I was pretty much always cooking. I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in 2001 and I’ve worked in kitchens in the United States and abroad, from Boston and Buffalo, New York, to staging in Sagas, Spain. I’ve also worked my way around D.C., too, starting at Zaytinya in 2006 as sous chef for about four years, working as sous chef at Hook in Georgetown, and then finally landing here at Vinoteca. I started the menu here with a strong Spanish/Mediterranean influence, focusing on sourcing my products responsibly, and have since kind of come into my own style; not so much in any one direction, but letting the availability of the products dictate the menu.

What’s it like to cook for a restaurant that is heavily focused on wine and, coincidentally, food that pairs well with wine?

Wine and food have long been known to pair well together, so it’s really not much different than creating a menu for any other restaurant. I try to keep our food true to the ingredient and I think that helps complement the wines we offer, and I also try and get our customers’ preferences right. Plus, we offer more than 50 wines by the glass so there’s really something for everyone.


What is your inspiration for Vinoteca’s brunch?

Good, clean and wholesome ingredients, while being approachable-yet-fun. Food from our local farms really dictates what I use on the menu. Like, we use these kick-ass local brown eggs from an Amish farm in Pennsylvania, and we get in some awesome heirloom veggie varieties that I can play around with in our omelettes. We use great local ingredients and interesting techniques, making brunch delicious and a little fun while still being affordable.


Do you change the menu seasonally? Is there anything coming up on the brunch horizon?

I do change the menu several times a year, but I don’t necessarily think of it as “seasonal” so much as I just base the menus around what the farms have to offer at the time. Produce and ingredients tend to change more often than four times a year and some veggies and fruits become more and less available depending on demand.  So instead of changing everything on the menu a few times a year, we change a few things every couple weeks or so, and of course always run specials on things I get in that I’m excited about. There are definitely some brunch changes about to happen, with some winter squash, sweet potatoes, turnips, leafy greens, and other produce popping up. You’ll have to come in and check out the new menu in the next couple weeks.

Mimosas or Bloody Marys?

Extra-picante Bloody Mary.

Favorite type of wine?

It depends on the weather, but usually Pinot Gris or Vinho Verde when it’s hot outside, and my standby is Pinot Noir.

What’s your favorite brunch dish—to prepare and to consume?

During brunch, I love knocking out some really nicely cooked omelets, super fluffy and moist on the inside, that to me is so rewarding. I think most omelets end up overcooked and dry when cooked in high volume. My favorite to consume… well I almost never eat in the mornings especially during our busy brunch… but it is a toss-up between the Duck Benny and the Pan Con Tomate with sunny side-up eggs. It’s a crowd favorite on our menu and reminds me of when I lived in Spain.


When you’re not working, where do you brunch?

At home with my wife and daughter. I really never have a chance to try other brunches because I’ve always worked my own brunch at Vinoteca or am sleeping-in on my day off.

Vinoteca is participating in the March of Dimes Signature Chefs Auction in November at the Ritz. Why do you think this cause is important?

As a new parent, I really value any information that helps my wife and I make the best decisions about our daughter’s health, and I think helping to contribute to the education of other future parents is such an important thing. And we at Vinoteca love supporting charitable causes and participating in these fundraising events— it’s a night of delicious food and great company, all for a fantastic cause.

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